On March 15, approximately 200 religious and secular leaders gathered in Moscow’s “President-Hotel” for the 11th Russian National Prayer Breakfast since its inception in 1995.

This year’s gathering, entitled “Russia ― a Multi-National and Multi-Cultural Country,” was highlighted by Nikolay Svanidze’s impassioned call for Russian society to address the crying social and economic needs of its young.

Svanidze, a prominent TV journalist and head of the state-run “Commission of the Public Chamber for Multi-National Relations and Freedom of Conscience,” decried the aggressive, xenophobic nationalism increasingly prominent among the nation’s young.

Millions of youth are suffering from “poverty, crudity, violence and unjust courts and are seeking a release for their aggressive emotions.” He described the state’s propaganda for the young as promoting xenophobia and being “majestically-superfluous and nationalistic in character".

Svanidze noted that Russia’s “patriotic” societies and media have described the earthquakes in Japan as just “punishment for encroaching upon our rights to the Kuril Islands” just off the Japanese coast. He branded this reaction “a result of our moral isolationism, a post-imperial syndrome.”

He appealed for a “national program teaching respect for one another, something almost completely absent from our country.” “Social escalator” programs could instil in the young a sense of hope for the future. Russians too must learn that all are human beings without ethnic or confessional boundaries.

Unity was the order of the day. Sergey Melnikov, Head Secretary of the “Council for Cooperation with Religious Organizations at the Seat of the President of the Russian Federation,” cited the terrorist attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Jan. 24 which killed 37 and injured 180.

He remarked that, thanks to blood donations, “the blood in the veins of the survivors was merged with the blood of those from differing faiths.” This symbolizes Russia’s existence as a united and single organism, he said.

Akhmad Garifullin, a deputy of Moscow’s head mufti, noted that the USSR’s victory over fascism in World War II was only possible because the nation acted as one irrespective of individual confession. Today‘s challenges demand a similar unity, he said. “Prayer is the weapon of the believers. We stand together in the struggle against terror.”

The event’s new format

“We Baptists never got to put in a word of our own!” one Baptist worker complained following the event. The Russian Prayer Breakfast has traditionally been a forum largely for the self-presentation of Protestant churches and organizations.

In this year’s format, greetings and presentations included political leaders and one representative each from the Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities. The two Protestants who spoke were Pavel Sautov at the opening and his deputy, Vyacheslav Starikov, at the close. Both are from the small “Russian Association of Independent Evangelical Churches.”

Nearly a year ago, Sautov replaced Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko as chair of the board for the "National Prayer Breakfast Fund.” Vlasenko, chair of the  Department of External Relations of the Baptist Union and a recent visitor to the PC(USA) national offices in Louisville, is presently the Prayer Breakfast’s deputy head.

Alexander Torshin, a veteran participant at Washington, DC’s National Prayer Breakfast, explained in his short speech the intended future direction of the Russian movement.

In agreement with the North American model, the Russian event is intended to become more of a presentation from and for political leaders ― not clergy. That is something quite different from the past Protestant event attended by few politicians in Moscow.

Torshin regards Russian politicians publically testifying to their personal faith to be a distant dream, but he does believe that prayer gatherings will begin to take place within the Russian Duma and Parliament in the coming months.

He described the prayers and gatherings of small groups of believing politicians as a unifying force, as “soft diplomacy promoting the resolution of conflicts” in a highly-contentious society.

Criticism of the Breakfast’s new format centers on the fear the event may not remain explicitly Christian. Evgeny Bakhmutsky, senior vice-president of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists,” stated he missed Christ-centered praying among the Protestant speakers.

For the first time in years, there were no Russian Orthodox clergy visible at the event. The Moscow Patriarchate explains increasingly that the Prayer Breakfast’s format s not consistent with Orthodox convictions.

In the Orthodox tradition, public prayers need to be prayed by Orthodox clergy, and joint prayer with non-Orthodox Christians is now discouraged. Consequently, the Orthodox are championing their own inter-confessional forum. Its first public sessions may take place as early as Fall 2011.

Yet Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast movement is far from dead. A similar Breakfast was held in St. Petersburg on March 22. Another will take place in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia in April. Next year’s Moscow event is scheduled for March 13.

William Yoder is media spokesperson for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).