Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Russian prosecutors have opened a criminal case based on complaints that a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church has been selling a booklet containing excerpts from one of history's most notorious anti-Semitic documents, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Although individual priests have been accused of anti-Semitic activities before, the case could subject the church as an institution to sanctions for the first time under a five-year-old law which bans the publication of hate literature.
The move follows a campaign spearheaded by a Jewish leader in the Sverdlovsk region, Dr. Mikhail Oshtrakh, who since last summer has been writing letters of protest to local, regional and federal government officials and lawmakers.
Oshtrakh said by phone from the city of Yekaterinburg Wednesday that he had been shocked to find -- in an Orthodox Church bookstore -- recently-republished copies of a 1915 booklet, "Bliz est, pri dveryakh" ("It is near, even at the doors"), by Sergei Nilus, an influential Orthodox priest and civil servant in pre-revolutionary Russia.
The book contains excerpts from "The Protocols," which purports to be the account of a meeting by powerful Jews plotting to control the world. It is widely recognized by historians as a forgery aimed at smearing the Jews by painting them as a dangerous threat to Christianity and the West.
"The Protocols" has been cited by anti-Semites ever since it appeared as rationalization for the maltreatment of Jews, culminating in its use by Hitler to justify the murder of European Jewry during World War II. It remains popular in parts of the Arab world and elsewhere.
On further inspection, Oshtrakh said, he found that the booklet had been re-published by Orthodox Church publishers in 2000. He said the booklet contained an inscription noting that it was being made available with the blessing of an Orthodox archbishop, who is based in a nearby diocese.
It could now be bought in a number of bookshops in the area for around 105 rubles ($3.40), including "icon shops," where Orthodox books, icons and other paraphernalia are sold.
In his appeal letters, Oshtrakh said, he had also pointed to anti-Semitic articles published in local diocese newspapers in the recent past.
Oshtrakh, a biophysicist and president of a regional Jewish organization, demanded that the distribution be stopped and that criminal charges be brought against those responsible.
He cited article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, a relatively new law outlawing "actions directed toward the instigation of nationalist, racial or religious animosity, humiliation of national pride or, similarly, propaganda of exclusiveness, superiority or inferiority of citizens on the principle of their affiliation to religion, nationality or race."
Article 282, which has become a symbolic target for Russian ultra-nationalists, has up to now been applied "extremely rarely," according to a report in the Vremia Novostei newspaper last month.
Last August, the local prosecutor's office rejected Oshtrakh's complaint. He then made further appeals, backed by more than a dozen local organizations representing ethnic minorities, including Tatars, Kazakhs, Gypsies and Greeks. Oshtrakh said he had even written to President Vladimir Putin.
Finally, federal prosecuting authorities ordered the local office to open a criminal case, and to make the results available both to themselves and to the complainant, by no later than February 14.
Oshtrakh said Wednesday he was pleased at the outcome, but realized there was a long way to go before the matter was finalized.
"I hope the truth will win," he said.
'Seal of approval'
According to Nickolai Butkevich, research and advocacy director of the U.S.-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ), article 282 was put into place "to help preserve inter-ethnic harmony in an unstable, multi-ethnic state and to protect historically persecuted minorities like Jews."
"Jewish history is filled with examples of violence following the incitement of hatred through similar literature," he said from Washington.
Local authorities' refusal until now to act sent a signal to anti-Semites that they could expect a certain degree of impunity, Butkevich added.
"The Russian Orthodox Church is very influential and widely respected by many Russians. If they put their seal of approval on such hate literature, it becomes even more dangerous."
Butkevich said the local diocese had been linked before to anti-Semitic scandals, and its church newspaper, Pravoslavnaya Gazeta, had been known to publish anti-Semitic views.
A former archbishop had close ties with a neo-Nazi group. At his farewell service in September 1999, Archbishop Nikon was guarded by "young people in black clothing with swastikas on their sleeves," according to an article in the Sept. 1 edition of the Nezavisimaia Gazeta newspaper.
Butkevich said the UCSJ was very pleased about the decision to prosecute, saying it was thanks to federal authorities who acted when local officials refused to do so. Most of all, he said, it was thanks to Oshtrakh's refusal to give up.
A diocese official, Fr. Vladimir Zaysev, was quoted in a local news agency report as accusing Oshtrakh of trying to "score political points for himself," adding that the broader Jewish community did not take "The Protocols" seriously.
Nilus' book was first published almost a century ago, Zaysev said, and of the millions of Russians who had read it, not one was inspired by it to hate Jews.
But Mikhail Chlenov, president of a large Jewish umbrella organization in Russia called the Va'ad, disagreed. He was quoted as saying that the document was "the reason for many tragedies, including the Holocaust. They were long ago recognized as falsified and insulting to the Jewish people."
According to Chlenov, the overall leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has long expressed a negative opinion of "The Protocols," which suggested that its distribution in Yekaterinburg was a local church initiative.
Attempts to get comment from the church's Moscow Patriarchate were unsuccessful. But an article in the U.S. Jewish newspaper The Forward last August quoted Orthodox Church officials in Moscow as distancing the church from "The Protocols."
Not all its clergymen apparently hold that view, however.
An NTV news item last January 16 reported on an Orthodox Church conference devoted to the anniversary of Nilus' death in 1929. At the event, it said, a priest had "presented a report which identified as the chief enemy of Russia and Orthodoxy the 'tripartite serpent' - Judaism, papism [Catholicism], and free masonry."
Nilus first published a book containing "The Protocols" in 1905. By the early 1920s the document was circulating in Europe and the United States, with Russian-language editions published in New York, Berlin, Paris and Tokyo.
During the 1920s, Henry Ford published a series of articles on the "Jewish Problem" in his Dearborn, Michigan, paper, largely based on "The Protocols." But in 1927, he repudiated "The Protocols" as a forgery, and undertook to stop publishing articles smearing the Jews.
In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, the document became an official textbook in the Berlin school system despite widespread acknowledgement around the world that it was a forgery.
In recent decades, "The Protocols" has been published in several Arab countries, and extracts frequently appear in Arab media.
As recently as last year, the official Palestinian Authority newspaper was quoting excerpts from "The Protocols," according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors anti-Semitism worldwide.
The document continues to circulate from Japan to Latin America to the U.S., where it is favored by white-supremacist groups.