Russia has climbed to number three in the world ranking of billionaires, but a meeting of religious leaders, academics and public officials has noted the gap between rich and poor signifies a peace-threatening division in the world's biggest country - writes Sophia Kishkovsky for ENI.
The yearly forum, which ran from 5 to 7 March 2007, addressed the problem of poverty in resource-rich Russia. It also condemned efforts to sow discord in the Russian Orthodox Church as it nears reunion with a breakaway émigré group.
"Right now the words 'wealth' and 'poverty' more and more signify the deep division of the sons and daughters of Russia, which gives rise to glaring moral problems and threatens peace and stability in society," read a statement by the 11th World Russian People's Council.
Each council addresses a theme on Russian spirituality, society and identity. Patriarch Aleksei II of the Russian Orthodox Church chairs the forum, sponsored by the church and held at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's external church relations' section, is deputy chairman.
Both men spoke of an alarming rich-poor divide in Russia, where billionaires drive Bentleys and drop millions of dollars on a whim, while the poor have annual incomes amounting to a couple of bottles of wine in a fancy Moscow restaurant. The U.S. business magazine Forbes showed last week how Russia's billionaires jumped to 53 in 2007.
Speaking of the council's theme in an interview with Vesti-24, a state-run television news channel, Kirill said, "We all know what happens when our fat cats start throwing money around abroad, how they bring shame on Russia." This was an apparent reference to Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire arrested in connection with an alleged prostitution ring in Courchevel, a French ski resort favoured by rich Russians.
Kirill noted, "Conflict between rich and poor has once already given rise to the tragedy of revolution and civil war."
The council also appealed for church unity in a reference to strife among Orthodox factions in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. The gathering hinted at efforts to scuttle a reunion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which broke with Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The reunion, scheduled for May, is regarded as signifying the end of the Russian Civil War.
A recent book forward by Bishop Diomid of Chukotka, a remote Siberian region, has caused a furore. He accuses the Moscow Patriarchate of compromising church purity by involvement in ecumenical activities such as an international interfaith forum in Moscow in July 2006 that preceded a meeting of Group of Eight leaders in Saint Petersburg.
At a press briefing after the opening of the forum, Patriarch Aleksei said opponents of the Moscow Patriarchate's reunion with the émigré church had intentionally overblown the bishop's comments in a campaign to block unity.
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]