MOSCOW (RNS/ENInews) Russian prisons, struggling with a growing crime rate, overcrowding and shortfalls in funding, are turning to religion to bring moral guidance to inmates.
The move marks a dramatic change from the Soviet system, when clergy and believers were often imprisoned for their faith.

“We have signed agreements with all of the leading confessions of our country,” said Aleksandr Reimer, the director of Russia’s Federal Correctional Service, in an interview with the Rossiiskaya Gazeta, an official government newspaper.

Although the Russian Orthodox Church has become increasingly close to the government in recent years, Reimer said that that imposing Russia’s largest religion on inmates was not the goal.

“Right now we’re preparing an agreement with Buddhists,” Reimer said in the interview. “We’re providing everyone with access. We’re building churches, mosques and synagogues.”

In July, at a ceremony at Moscow’s Jewish Community Centre, Reimer signed an agreement on opening synagogues and Jewish prayer rooms in prisons with Aleksandr Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

The agreement, which has already resulted in at least three prison synagogues, calls for the Federation of Jewish Communities to provide humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine, to prisoners.

Reimer said the correctional service had started a pilot project with the Russian Orthodox Church in four regions of Russia to introduce prison chaplains. Practical issues, such as who will pay for and supervise the priests—still need to be resolved.

“Neither representatives of confessions, nor we today, have the goal of forcing everyone to go to church,” he said. “Why should we engage in such sacrilege? If an inmate has come to faith, we think that it could stop him from committing a crime in the future.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has created a department for prison ministry. Last year the church held a three-day seminar for clergy and church social workers who provide pastoral care for HIV-infected prisoners.

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