A heated debate over Russia's first tsar, Ivan the Terrible, and the lecherous mystical healer Grigory Rasputin, who compromised the monarchy in its waning years, is threatening to create a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. At issue is a campaign to canonize the two men that is rooted in a widely embraced belief that the monarchy fell victim to a plot masterminded by Jews and Freemasons.
Last week, a group of theologians, church historians and official Orthodox journalists de facto proclaimed what has long been discussed privately in church circles -- that the campaign is being carried out by a sect that is undermining the Russian Orthodox Church from within.
For a decade the Moscow Patriarchate has tolerated the canonization drive in order to avoid a schism at all costs. But the drive has now grown so strong that the Patriarchate is considering changing its policy. It is unclear, however, whether it would be able to muster enough strength and moral authority to overcome the canonization forces.
Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II has spoken out against the canonizations in unusually strong terms over the past year, stressing it would be impossible to canonize Ivan the Terrible, who ordered the deaths of several clergymen who were later sainted, and Rasputin, whose debauchery and dubious healing practices compromised the last imperial family of Tsar Nicholas II.
"This is madness!" the patriarch said in his first statement on the subject in December 2001. "What believer would want to stay in a church that equally venerates murderers and martyrs, lechers and saints?"
But repeated statements by the patriarch have had little affect. In October, canonization proponents held a conference in Moscow and urged him to consider their request.
The theologians who last week linked the drive to a sect drew up a list of unofficial Orthodox newspapers, Internet sites and radio programs involved in the push and warned in a statement that they "undoubtedly could lead to a schism in the church."
"These publications juggle the facts of church history, distort the foundations of the Orthodox faith and ultimately create a sectarian mentality," the statement said.
The theologians said canonization supporters were also behind a protest against the government's decision to issue tax identification numbers (protesters likened the numbers to the apocalyptic sign of the beast) and a drive to venerate Nicholas II not as a passion bearer, as he was canonized in 2000, but as a co-redeemer -- which would put him on par with Jesus.
They said the campaign was being driven by a low level of church culture and a large influx of neophytes with a dissident mentality.
"Those demanding the canonization of Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin are a small but very noisy group," said Alexander Dvorkin, the church's leading expert on sects. "This will be followed by demands to canonize Stalin -- there is already some so-called research showing that he was secretly a monk. It is impossible to disprove all of these myths.
"Religious hysterics are the basis of this pseudo-Orthodox sect acting within our church."
Alexei Beglov, an Orthodox historian, said the roots of such thinking -- which includes the belief that Jesus will appear on earth as a new tsar -- can be traced to the apocalyptic superstitions of Russian peasants in the early 1900s.
These beliefs could be written off if they did not represent the development of the most appealing and coherent anti-Semitic ideology within the Russian Orthodox Church today.
Books and articles describing Ivan the Terrible as "St. Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich" and Rasputin as "Martyr for God and Tsar Elder Grigory Novy" first appeared in the mid-1990s, along with icons depicting them as saints and prayer services glorifying them.
Most of these writings have a strong anti-clerical slant.
One prayer to Rasputin, written by a certain Nikolai Kozlov and published in a brochure, reads: "Seeing thy otherworldly struggle and labor with their carnal eyes, Oh St. Grigory, and having listened to the Jewish slander and libel, many bishops and priests were tempted and persecuted thee and thy kin. ... Thereupon thou received bodily wounds and a ferocious death from the Jews."
It is a matter of historical record that Rasputin was killed in 1916 by monarchists -- Prince Felix Yusupov and Duma member Vladimir Purishkevich, with the knowledge of Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich.
But this does not sway the myth-makers.
They describe Rasputin's killers as Freemasons, which is synonymous with Jews in their thinking.
They believe that Rasputin's orgies were carried out by a double and staged by his enemies.
They say Rasputin was a holy elder serving the tsar and healing his hemophiliac son, Alexis.
The same is true of Ivan the Terrible.
Proponents of his canonization see him only as a devout leader who formed the Russian monarchy in the 16th century and showed mercy while suppressing revolts.
The dark side of his reign -- mass murders, including those of his son and prominent clergymen, as well as his many marriages -- are ignored or denied as slander.
Proponents also ignore Russian Orthodox hymns that describe Ivan as a new pharaoh and new Herod.
The canonization drive is an offshoot of the teachings of the charismatic and controversial Metropolitan Ioann of St. Petersburg, who died in 1995.
Loann taught that the monarchy was the last bastion of the Orthodox faith in a battle against the anti-Christian forces of Jews, Freemasons and Western Christian heretics, who he said led the Russian people to atheism and liberalism.
His teachings say that Ivan the Terrible founded the bastion and Rasputin was sent to protect the last tsar and his son.
The belief that Nicholas II was a sacrificial lamb slain by anti-Christian forces propelled a years-long campaign to canonize the imperial family.
The Moscow Patriarchate, however, rejected the theories by canonizing the imperial family in 2000 as passion bearers -- people who accepted their imminent death with Christian humility.
The canonization has only bolstered the confidence of people like Konstantin Dushenov, a former aide to Metropolitan Ioann who is one of the leaders of the campaign.
He said Moscow Patriarchate officials were worried about the campaign only because they were realizing that they lack the moral authority to influence church members.
"They can control cash flows and administrative resources but not the way that believers really feel," said Dushenov, editor of the St. Petersburg newspaper Rus Pravoslavnaya.
"If it is God's will, no one will be able to stop us -- neither the patriarch nor the synod," he said.