Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church backed a proposal to launch a nation-wide debate on whether to criminalise homosexuality.

Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin said on Friday that the issue “deserved discussion in society without any doubt,” adding that while gay relations between men pose a threat to society, possible punishment for such actions should be left for the people to decide on.

The cleric cited India, where the Supreme Court has re-criminalised homosexuality, and Australia, which has struck down a law legalising same sex-marriage, as examples of “many peoples” reverting to the “normal” idea that homosexuality “destroys the family and leads to the self-destruction of a nation.”

The Church spokesman was responding to a scandalous call by former Orthodox priest, actor and showman Ivan Okhlobystin to reinstate Soviet-era criminal punishment for male homosexuality.

In an open letter to President Vladimir Putin three days ago, Mr Okhlobystin asked him to initiate a referendum on “returning Article 121 punishing for ‘sodomy’ to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.”

The actor-turned priest-turned actor-again argued that unless the gay were prosecuted they would soon acquire the status of a “social group” and with it “a constitutional opportunity to defile the younger generation.”

Archpriest Chaplin’s support for prosecuting homosexuals appears to be in line with the Russian Orthodox Church’s negative attitude to homosexuality as a “sinful derangement of human nature.” The Church has welcomed a recent Russian law banning gay propaganda among minors, which provoked uproar in the West and prompted calls to boycott the Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi next month.

However, the Church’s support for the controversial proposal to prosecute homosexuals may have more to do with an attempt to deflect growing accusations of the Russian hierarchy of engaging in homosexual relations.

Two weeks ago a prominent Orthodox priest was sacked as a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy for speaking out against what he claims to be a powerful “gay lobby” in the high echelons of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In his popular LifeJournal blog Deacon Andrei Kurayev has been publishing testimonials by men who have been forced to have sex with Orthodox priests and bishops. The theologist has made it clear that gay relations are quite common in the Russian Orthodox Church.

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