I am now in Moscow, which once again became a holy city, with hundreds of churches and monasteries that were resurrected from ashes for last twenty years. The churches are all different, some gold and baroque paintings in 19th century style, some harking back to Ivan the Grim days, decorated with murals floor to ceiling, and some even older, millennia-old, stuffed with hand-painted icons, their small and large onion domes a-blazing of gold and azure. Moscow may be compared with Florence, Cusco, Katmandu as a prime city of worship, but it is much bigger and much more alive with its ten million residents. Yesterday, Saturday night, the churches were full of worshippers – they stood inside and outside the edifices, holding their lit red candles, preparing themselves to the glorious moment, a few minutes after midnight, when the priests are coming out and calling Christ is Risen, and the congregation responds with Verily He is Risen. Huge cross-street boards announce that Christ is Risen, blissfully unaware of political correctness limitations.
I came here from the Holy Land, which is also a wonderful place for Easter, but Moscow has something that even Jerusalem has not got: the totality of experience: non-Christians are not that plentiful to interfere. Here it is the feast for everybody, by everybody, and you can bless everyone you meet with ‘Christ is Risen’ without giving a thought to his possible persuasion.
Jerusalem is not forgotten here: in every church, there is Holy Fire brought on Easter Saturday by plane from the Holy Sepulchre. According to the Palestinian custom, the Fire breaks out of the Empty Tomb just after midday on Saturday. It stands and burns in an oil lamp amidst my Moscow church, calm and complacent after the long journey. I remember accompanying my priest, Archbishop Atallah Hanna, in the dangerous quest of bringing the Holy Fire through the Israeli army checkpoints to Ramallah and Tubas.
In a Moscow church, one understands why Christ fulfilled the Law. It is not only the Holy Fire of Jerusalem. They do not need just one temple which demands al Aqsa mosque to be demolished: every church is modelled on the Jerusalem temple of old, and it is much more beautiful than bare and often squalid synagogues. The priests wear red today, and so many worshippers carrying red Easter eggs. The liturgy tells of the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. The old message of Israel is fully universalised.
This year the feast united the Christians of the East and the West, and such years are doubly auspicious. They allow us to remember the eternal and profound unity of the Church. Otherwise, when the feasts move far apart, I do by the modern Palestinian custom and celebrate Christmas with the West, in the West, and Easter with the East, in the East. Try and do it next year, or any other year, until voracious modernity will swallow the last glimpse of spirit.
The name of the feast is important too. It is not that I object to the old pre-Christian name of Easter. It calls to the East and reminds of Astara, or Astarte, the spouse of Yahweh, so it has long roots. The Old-Testament-style name of Pascha means Sacrifice, and it is also fine, for Christ was the sacrifice. But even better name is Resurrection Sunday, or Anastasis in Greek. It reminds us much more vividly of the reason for the feast, and I bless you, my dear reader, with the blessing of Resurrection. This is a great word, a great idea: usually, we walk around like dead zombies, captives of the lower world, and Resurrection is something we do need badly, Resurrection that is Awakening, Coming back to life, recognising ourselves. Japanese call it satori.
I have been invited to speak on the Russian TV, announcing my belief that there is no confrontation between Christianity and Islam, though enemies of both faiths try to create it. Political problems are just that – political, and not theological. And in the political sphere, Palestine is a powerful uniting knot. Yes, we want Palestine to be saved, but its suffering is not in vain if it keeps our friends united and our enemies in disarray. Without Palestine, it would be much easier to unleash Christians upon Muslims, Shias upon Sunnis, Russians against Chinese and Arabs against Iranians. This is the Christ-nature of Palestine and its fate.
I came to Christ ten years ago, when I recognised this Christ-nature. It was preached by Father Ateek of Jerusalem. I was visiting Washington DC then. I repeated his preaching and I was almost crucified by the enemies. Since then I wear the red mark of an enemy of Jews, and still no regrets: thus a butterfly is an enemy of caterpillar for it denies caterpillar’s finality.
I came to Moscow when she suffered the bomb attack. By God, Russians are different: there was a very responsible, calm and compassionate coverage, none of hysterical frenzy we are accustomed to in Israel – or in America. They tried to keep repercussions down to minimum; though security is beefed up in anticipation of possible follow-up, but the city remained calm.
This calm gives the lie to rumours spread by the usual suspects that the explosions were somehow orchestrated by local forces keen to suppress citizens’ liberties. In Israel, or in America such explosions would be utilized by the state to unleash their fury on defenceless Gaza or Afghanistan, to attack and profile Muslims, to bring in new laws muzzling people by Patriot acts. Nothing of this sort happens in Russia. The civil rights are not infringed. The attacks were meant to undermine the position of the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is responsible for general security. Their second objective was to facilitate Russian vote against Iran. These goals point out the guiding hand: it is surely to be found well beyond Caucasus Mountains.
I’ve met today with Russian Muslims, including the Mufti; all of them condemn the acts, all of them stress that it was not in their interests. The Mufti correctly said that the Russian Muslims have no single will; they are not united on any question; things done by people who happen to be Muslims are not done because they are Muslims. Likewise, IRA bombings were not done because the Irish nationalists were Catholic.
Some of our friends refer to Chechen plight. No doubt, the first Chechen war was a crime perpetrated by the West’s appointee Boris Yeltsin. But this is past long gone. Now Chechens have all the rights, the Chechens in Moscow are a highly visible and prosperous community, with a status that Palestinians would be extremely lucky to achieve. Now there is no reason for confrontation, and there is every reason for healing. Alas, some of the Chechen rebels joined the path of CIA stooges of al-Qaeda. It is better to give up on them like we gave up on Tamil Tigers.
Much in our world depends on Russia. Together with China, she can save Iran and the world. The Russians believe that the plans of attack on Iran were shelved indefinitely, judging by Diego Garcia Bunker Buster airlift, but who knows? Russian anti-Putin dissidents led by Kasparov and Bonner call to distance Russia from China, to support the West against Iran, and stand by Israel against Palestine. There is a place for dissent; much of internal Russian politics are in shambles, the gap between the rich and the poor is too big; income tax stands at ridiculous 12%, oligarchs are as rich as ever, neoliberalism is still alive and kicking. But one should be cautious and support the right (meaning the left) sort of dissent. The dissidents I would embrace are those who join the ships for Gaza and who will tax the oligarchs to oblivion. Such ones are quite rare in Russia – and in Iran.
We are going through a very important and tricky patch; this is a wrong time for relaxing and wait-and-seeing; this is the time to act, to act for peace. Not a fake peace of surrender, but the true peace of victory. Its best example is the Christ’s victory over Death.
I’ll conclude with the traditional blessing: Christ is Risen!