Gay people hunted in Russia: a challenge for churches

A powerful documentary on Channel 4, ‘Hunted’, shows the level of homophobic hatred and violence in Russia. As the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, the United Nations Secretary-General and writers from many countries have condemned the human rights abuses taking place. Churches should consider their stance.

Negative treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people has been fuelled by Russian Orthodox church leaders, who more generally have supported president Vladimir Putin in violating human rights. While there are varying views among Christians about sexual ethics, persecuting a vulnerable minority is unjust, unloving and a rejection of Christ.

Gays are “basically serving the devil,” Sergei Rybko, a senior cleric, told the documentary-makers led by investigative journalist Liz MacKean. The consequences of promoting such attitudes were graphically shown on Dispatches on 5 February. Gangs track down, beat and torture gays, videoing the attacks to be shared online in order to further humiliate and ‘out’ the victims.

“If it's constantly drilled into people that we are... scum and perverts, I understand why these guys shot at me,” said 25-year-old Dima, who had been blinded in one eye; “a hunting season is open and we are the hunted."

A law against pro-gay ‘propaganda’ blocks people of goodwill from effectively countering prejudice and misinformation. Nevertheless, as the documentary showed, some human rights defenders in Russia are courageously putting themselves on the line.

Internationally, people in various walks of life have taken a stand against the hate-mongering and repression.

"Many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice. We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the International Olympic Committee. "We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face."

He said that “Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century."

Over two hundred writers (some of them Russian) signed an open letter published in the Guardian on 6 February, pointing out that “during the last 18 months, Russian lawmakers have passed a number of laws that place a chokehold on the right to express oneself freely in Russia.”

“Three of these laws specifically put writers at risk: the so-called gay ‘propaganda’ and ‘blasphemy’ laws, prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and ‘religious insult’ respectively, and the recriminalisation of defamation,” they stated. They urged the Russian authorities to repeal these laws and create “an environment in which all citizens can experience the benefit of the free exchange of opinion.” Signatories included Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Wole Soyinka and Ariel Dorfman.

Churches which disapprove of hunting LGBT people, in Russia or anywhere in the world, might wish to consider whether they have made clear their reasons for believing in human rights for all, as well as educating their own members on this issue.

At ecumenical events, Russian Orthodox leaders have been blunt in criticising other churches for being too soft in their attitudes to same-sex partnerships, described in alarmist terms. “Militant secularism” includes “the straightforward destruction of traditional notions of marriage and the family”, as witnessed by “the new phenomenon of equating homosexual unions with marriage and allowing single-sex couples to adopt children,” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk told the World Council of Churches in November 2013.

“Unfortunately, not all Christian Churches today find within themselves the courage and resolve to vindicate the biblical ideals by going against that which is fashionable and the prevalent secular outlook,” claimed Hilarion, chairman of the department for external church relations of the Moscow patriarchate.

However it is contrary to Gospel values to victimise the vulnerable and teach people to loathe their neighbour. Perhaps churches committed to compassion and justice for all should do more to make this clear.

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© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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