MOSCOW: Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church proposed Friday a referendum on banning gay relations in the face of Western pressure over human rights ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The church’s abrupt intervention came amid a growing debate over whether the Kremlin should mount a firmer defense of traditional values that many in the overwhelmingly conservative country view as coming under attack from Europe and the United States.
Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin pointed to polls showing more than half of Russians viewing homosexuality as either an illness or a crime as a sign that the country was ready to revert to a Soviet-era homosexual ban.
“There is no question that society should discuss this issue since we live in a democracy,” Chaplin told the online edition of the pro-government Izvestia daily.
“For this reason, it is precisely the majority of our people and not some outside powers that should decide what should be a criminal offense and what should not,” he said.
Chaplin – an outspoken but also influential church figure who airs weekly shows on state TV – claimed that most countries viewed homosexuality as a crime.
“I am convinced that such sexual contacts should be completely excluded from the life of our society,” the church spokesman said.
“If we manage to do this through moral pressure, all the better. But if we need to revert to assistance from the law, then let us ask the people if they are ready for this.”
The Soviet Union criminalized homosexuality in 1934 at the height of repressions by Joseph Stalin that saw millions die in labor camps.
Post-Soviet Russia quietly repealed the law in 1993 while allowing officials in big cities like Moscow to ban gay pride parades and other displays of homosexual rights.
And President Vladimir Putin last year signed fast-tracked legislation making it illegal to “promote” same-sex relationships in front of minors.
A study conducted by the independent Levada center a month after the “homosexual propaganda ban’s adoption showed only one in five Russians believe that people were actually born gay.
More than a third said homosexuality should be treated medically and 13 percent backed the idea of making it a crime – results suggesting that Chaplin’s proposal would pass easily if ever put to a vote.
A prominent member of Putin’s ruling party who oversees parliament’s legislative committee said international treaties adopted by Russia made passage of such a ban unlikely. “We have moved on from those times,” Pavel Krasheninnikov told the Interfax news agency.
“It is absolutely clear that such a law will not be adopted – in part because of our international obligations,” he said in apparent reference to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Some members of Russia’s LGBT still treated Chaplin’s comments as part of a worrying trend that has seen opposition views suppressed under Putin’s 14-year rule.
“If you stage a referendum in Russia, 90 percent would back both the death penalty and the idea of shooting all homosexuals,” gay pride parade organizer Eduard Murzin said in a telephone interview.
“By discriminating against minorities, the authorities want to deflect attention away from other problems,” Murzin said.