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Church Calls on Debtors to Repay or Face Hell

Court marshals are putting their faith in the Russian Orthodox Church to ease their workload as a growing number of people default on debts amid the economic crisis.

The Federal Court Marshals Service and the Moscow Patriarchate have signed an agreement under which priests will denounce the failure to repay debts as a sin in sermons and during private meetings with debtors organized by court marshals, the court marshals service said Wednesday.

"Priests will say that unpaid debt is the same as theft in Christianity," a spokesman for the court marshals service told The Moscow Times on customary condition of anonymity.

Regional court marshals have "occasionally" involved Orthodox priests, as well as Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, in their efforts to encourage people to make good on their debts in recent years, but the new agreement will take the cooperation with the Orthodox Church nationwide, the spokesman said.

Talks with Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders to sign similar agreements are under way, he said.

In Islam, an indebted person can't make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that every Muslim has to make at least once in his life, the spokesman said.

Buddhists, who teach reincarnation, believe that people's debts remain with them in each of their afterlives and "burden their karma," he said.

Some Orthodox believers, who face the prospect of hell if their unpaid debts are counted as unforgiven sins, expressed disdain with the church's involvement in the court marshals' debt collection drive.

"It is not the church's business to make people return their debts," said Gennady Titov, 37, a Moscow office manager with an outstanding bank loan. "Court marshals have no right to use the church for this."

A request for comment left with the Moscow Patriarchate's department on cooperation with military forces and law enforcement agencies, which signed the agreement, went unanswered Wednesday.

Court marshals have said their workload has increased amid the crisis.

Twenty-six percent of Russian families have outstanding debt, according to a survey conducted by state-run VTsIOM this month. A total of 52 percent of respondents said the economic crisis had made it more difficult to repay their debt, while 41 percent said the crisis had not affected their ability to pay.

The church has cooperated with the authorities in the past. In December, Orthodox priests took to the streets with Penza region traffic police and preached to violators who were flagged down, Noviye Izvestia reported at the time.

In February 2007, priests in a Tolyatti church integrated traffic rules into their sermons at the request of the traffic police, Noviye Izvestia said.

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