The Russian Church, also known as the Orthodox Christian Church of Russia or The Moscow Patriarchate, constitutes an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow, which is in communion with the other Eastern Orthodox Churches. Following the capture of the city of Constantinople in 1453 C.E., the Russian Orthodox Church saw itself as the "Third Rome," the legitimate successor to the Church of Constantinople.
The Russian Orthodox Church should not be confused with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (also known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, or ROCOR), based in New York. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was formed by Russian communities outside then-Communist Russia who refused to recognize the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, as they believed it had fallen under the influence of the Bolsheviks. The two churches have reconciled as of May 17, 2007, and the ROCOR is now a self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to its own tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church was founded by the Apostle Andrew, who allegedly visited Scythia and the Greek colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea. It is said that Andrew reached the future location of Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city. The spot where he reportedly erected a cross is now marked by Saint Andrew's Cathedral.
By the end of the first millennium C.E., eastern Slavic lands started to come under the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 863-869, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius translated parts of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic language for the first time, paving the way for the Christianization of the Slavs. There is evidence that the first Christian bishop was sent to Novgorod from Constantinople either by Patriarch Photius or Patriarch Ignatios, circa 866-867 C.E.
By the mid-tenth century, there was already a Christian community among Kievan nobility, under the leadership of Greek and Byzantine priests, although paganism remained the dominant religion. Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity, either in 945 or 957 C.E. Her grandson, Vladimir the Great, made Kievan Rus' a Christian state.
In the wake of this Christianization, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted Byzantine Rite Christianity in 988 C.E.—the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire—as the state religion of Kievan Rus'. This date is often considered the official birthday of the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, in 1988, the Church celebrated its millennial anniversary. It therefore traces its apostolic succession through the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The Kievan church was originally a Metropolitanate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Byzantine patriarch appointed the metropolitan who governed the Church of Rus'. The Metropolitan's residence was originally located in Kiev. As Kiev was losing its political, cultural, and economical significance due to the Mongol invasion, Metropolitan Maximus moved to Vladimir in 1299; his successor, Metropolitan Peter moved the residence to Moscow in 1325.
Following the tribulations of the Mongol invasion, the Russian Church was pivotal in the survival and life of the Russian state. Despite the politically motivated murders of Mikhail of Chernigov and Mikhail of Tver, the Mongols were generally tolerant and even granted tax exemption to the Church. Such holy figures as Sergius of Radonezh and Metropolitan Alexis helped the country to withstand years of Tatar oppression, and to expand both economically and spiritually.
The monastic reform of Saint Sergius (d. 303 C.E.), which culminated in the foundation of the monastery known as Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow, was one of the defining events of medieval Russian history. The monastery became the setting for the unprecedented flourishing of transcendent, spiritual art, exemplified by the work of Andrey Rublev, among others. The followers of Sergius founded four hundred monasteries, thus greatly extending the geographical extent of his influence and authority.
The spiritual resurgence of the late fourteenth century, associated with the names of Saint Sergius, the missionary Stephen of Perm and the writer Epiphanius the Wise, contributed to the consolidation of the Russian nation. Lev Gumilev has observed that, having received the blessing of Saint Sergius to make a stand against the Tatars.
At the Council of Florence (1439 C.E.), a group of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church leaders agreed upon terms of reunification of the two branches of Christianity. The Russian Prince Basil II of Moscow, however, rejected the concessions to the Catholic Church and forbade the proclamation of the acts of the Council in Russia in 1452 C.E., after a short-lived East-West reunion. Metropolitan Isidore was in the same year expelled from his position as an apostate.
In 1448 C.E., the Russian Church became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Jonas, installed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1448, was given the title of Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia. This was just five years before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. From this point onward the Russian Orthodox Church saw Moscow as the Third Rome, legitimate successor to Constantinople, and the Patriarch of Moscow as head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Monastic life flourished in Russia, focusing on prayer and spiritual growth. The disciples of Saint Sergius left the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra to found hundreds of monasteries across Russia. Some of the most famous monasteries were located in the Russian North, even as far north as Pechenga, in order to demonstrate how faith could flourish in the most inhospitable lands. The richest landowners of medieval Russia included Joseph Volokolamsk Monastery, Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and the Solovetsky Monastery. In the 18th century, the three greatest monasteries were recognized as lavras, while those subordinated directly to the Synod were labelled stauropegic.
In the 1540s, Metropolitan Macarius codified Russian hagiography and convened a number of church synods, which culminated in the Hundred Chapter Synod of 1551. This assembly unified Church ceremonies and duties in the whole territory of Russia. At the demand of the Church hierarchy the government canceled the tsar's jurisdiction over ecclesiastics. Reinforced by these reforms, the Church felt strong enough to challenge the policies of the tsar. Philip of Moscow, in particular, decried many abuses of Ivan the Terrible, who eventually engineered his defrocking and murder.
During the reign of Tsar Theodor I, his brother-in-law Boris Godunov contacted the Ecumenical Patriarch, who "was much embarrassed for want of funds," with a view to establishing a patriarch see in Moscow. As a result of Godunov's efforts, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became in 1589 the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus', making the Russian Church autocephalous. The four other patriarchs have recognized the Moscow Patriarchate as one of the five honourable Patriarchates. During the next half a century, when the tsardom was weak, the patriarchs (notably Germogen and Philaret) would help run the state along with (and sometimes instead of) the tsars.
At the urging of the Zealots of Piety, Patriarch Nikon resolved in 1652 to centralize power that had been distributed locally, while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church, as interpreted by pundits from the Kiev Ecclesiastical Academy. For instance he insisted that Russian Christians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the then-traditional two. This aroused antipathy among a substantial section of the believers who saw the changed rites as heresy, although the extent to which these changes can be regarded as minor or major ritual significance remains open to debate. After the implementation of these innovations at the church counsil of 1666-1667, the Church anathematized and suppressed those who acted contrary to them with the support of Muscovite state power. These traditionalists became known as "Old Believers" or "Old Ritualists."
Although Nikon's far-flung ambitions of steering the country to a theocratic form of government precipitated his defrocking and exile, Tsar Aleksey deemed it prudent to uphold many of his innovations. During the Schism of the Russian Church, the Old Ritualists were separated from the main body of the Orthodox Church. Archpriest Avvakum Petrov and many other opponents of the church reforms were burned at the stake, either forcibly or voluntarily. Another prominent figure within the Old Ritualists' movement, Boyarynya Morozova, was starved to death in 1675. Others escaped from the government persecutions to Siberia and other inhospitable lands, where they would live in semi-seclusion until the modern times.
With the ascension of Emperor Peter the Great to the throne of Russia (1682-1725), with his radical modernization of Russian government, army, dress, and manners, Russia became a formidable political power. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced phenomenal geographic expansion. In the following two centuries, missionary efforts stretched out across Siberia into Alaska, then into the United States at California. Eminent people on that missionary effort included Saint Innocent of Irkutsk and Saint Herman of Alaska. In emulation of Stephen of Perm, they learned local languages and translated the gospels and the hymns. Sometimes those translations required the invention of new systems of transcription.
In the aftermath of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Ottomans (supposedly acting on behalf of the Russian regent Sophia Alekseyevna) pressured the Patriarch of Constantinople into transferring the Metropoly of Kiev from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to that of Moscow. The controversial transfer brought millions of faithful and half a dozen dioceses under the pastoral and administrative care of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus', leading to the significant Ukrainian domination of the Russian Orthodox Church, which continued well into the 18th century, with Feofan Prokopovich, Epifany Slavinetsky, Stephen Yavorsky and Demetrius of Rostov being among the most notable representatives of this trend.
In 1700, after Patriarch Adrian's death, Peter the Great prevented a successor from being named, and in 1721, following the advice of Feofan Prokopovich, Archbishop of Pskov, the Holy and Supreme Synod was established under Archbishop Stephen Yavorsky to govern the church instead of a single primate. This was the situation until shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, at which time the Local Council (more than half of its members being lay persons) adopted the decision to restore the Patriarchy. On November 5 (according to the Julian calendar) a new patriarch, Tikhon, was named through casting lots.
The late eighteenth century saw the rise of starchestvo under Paisiy Velichkovsky and his disciples at the Optina Monastery. This marked a beginning of a significant spiritual revival in the Russian Church after a lengthy period of westernization, personified by such figures as Demetrius of Rostov and Platon of Moscow. Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky, and other lay theologians with Slavophile leanings elaborated some key concepts of the renovated Orthodox doctrine, including that of sobornost. The resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy was reflected in Russian literature, e.g., the figure of Starets Zosima in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.
A major turning point in the history of Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church, occurred in 1917. The Russian empire was dissolved and the Tsarist government - which had granted the Church numerous privileges - was overthrown. After a few months of political turmoil, the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 and declared a separation of church and state. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church found itself without official state backing for the first time in its history. One of the first decrees of the new Communist government (issued in January 1918) declared freedom of "religious and anti-religious propaganda." This led to a marked decline in the power and influence of the Church. The Church was also caught in the crossfire of the Russian Civil War that began later the same year, and many leaders of the Church supported what would ultimately turn out to be the losing side (the White movement).
The Russian Orthodox Church supported the White Army in the Russian Civil War after the October Revolution. This may have further strengthened the Bolshevik animus against the church.
Even before the end of the civil war and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church came under pressure from the secular Communist government. The Soviet government stood on a platform of antireligion, viewing the church as a "counter-revolutionary" organization and an independent voice with a great influence in society. While the Soviet Union officially claimed religious tolerance, in practice the government discouraged organized religion and did much to remove religious influence from Soviet society.
The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. Some actions against Orthodox priests included torture, being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals. Many Orthodox (along with peoples of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment and mind control experimentation in order to force them give up their religious convictions.
In November 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government of Nicholas II, a council of the Russian Orthodox church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon as patriarch. But the new Soviet government soon declared the separation of church and state and nationalized all church-held lands. These administrative measures were followed by brutal state-sanctioned persecutions that included the wholesale destruction of churches and the arrest and execution of many clerics. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon's church (also see the Josephites and the Russian True Orthodox Church), restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful.
Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or converted to secular use. It was impossible to build new churches. Practising Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (the party, the Komsomol). Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored and encouraged by the government, to which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond. The government youth organization, the Komsomol, encouraged its members to vandalize Orthodox Churches and to harass worshippers. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from using the press.
The history of Orthodoxy (and other religions) under Communism was not limited to this story of repression and secularization. Bolshevik policies toward religious belief and practice tended to vacillate over time between, on the one hand, a utopian determination to substitute secular rationalism for what they considered to be an unmodern, "superstitious" worldview and, on the other, pragmatic acceptance of the tenaciousness of religious faith and institutions. In any case, religious beliefs and practices did persist, in the domestic and private spheres but also in the scattered public spaces allowed by a state that recognized its failure to eradicate religion and the political dangers of an unrelenting culture war.
In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.
The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.
Patriarch Tikhon anathematized the communist government, which further antagonized relations. When Tikhon died in 1925, the Soviet authorities forbade patriarchal elections to be held. Acting Patriarch Metropolitan Sergius going against the opinion of a major part of the church's parishes, in 1927 issued a declaration accepting the Soviet authority over the church as legitimate, pledging the church's cooperation with the government and condemning political dissent within the church. This action led to a split with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia abroad and the Russian True Orthodox Church (Russian Catacomb Church) within the Soviet Union. Due to this canonical disagreement, it is disputed which church has been the legitimate successor to the Russian Orthodox Church that had existed before 1925. In 1927, in order to secure the survival of the church, Metropolitan Sergius formally expressed his "loyalty" to the Soviet government and henceforth refrained from criticizing the state in any way. This attitude of loyalty, however, provoked more divisions in the church itself: inside Russia, a number of faithful opposed Sergius, and abroad, the Russian metropolitans of America and Western Europe severed their relations with Moscow.
After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. On September 4, 1943, Metropolitans Sergius received a permission to convene a council on September 8, 1943, that elected Sergius Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. This is considered by some violation of the XXX Apostolic canon, as no church hierarch could be consecrated by secular authorities. A new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy Seminary, which had been closed since 1918, was re-opened.
Between 1945 and 1959, the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. By 1957, about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. However, in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985, fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB. In the words of those who were allowed to view the KGB archives in the early 1990s, the church was "practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB".
A new and widespread persecution of the church was subsequently instituted under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. A second round of repression, harassment and church closures took place between 1959 and 1964 during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev.
The Church and the government remained on unfriendly terms until 1988. In practice, the most important aspect of this conflict was that openly religious people could not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which meant that they could not hold any political office. However, among the general population, large numbers remained religious.
Beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. A pivotal point in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 - the millennial anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus'. Throughout the summer of that year, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities; many older churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban on religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of Soviet Union, people could see live transmissions of church services on television.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world and has seen a resurgence in activity and vitality since the end of Soviet rule. Up to 90 percent of ethnic Russians and a significant number of Belarusians and Ukrainians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox, although the identification is sometimes more of a cultural rather than a religious one. Weekly church attendance, however, remains relatively low, though it has increased since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There have been difficulties in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, especially since 2002, when Pope John Paul II created a Catholic diocesan structure for Russian territory. The leadership of the Russian Church saw this action as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize the Russian Orthodox faithful to become Roman Catholic. This point of view is based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is in schism, after breaking off from the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believes that the small Catholic minority in Russia, in continuous existence since at least the eighteenth century, should be served by a fully developed church hierarchy with a presence and status in Russia, just as the Russian Orthodox Church is present in other countries (including constructing a cathedral in Rome, near the Vatican).
The issue of encroachment by other Christian denominations into Russia is a particularly sensitive one to many members of the Russian Orthodox Church. They argue that the Orthodox Church now finds itself in a weakened position as a result of decades of secular Communist rule, and is therefore unable to compete on an equal footing with Western Churches. Thus, proselytizing by mostly foreign-based Catholics, Protestant denominations, and by many non-traditional sects can be seen as taking unfair advantage of the still-recovering condition of the Russian Church. On the other hand, Baptists and members of other Protestant denominations, that have become active in Russia in the past decade, claim that the state provides unfair support to the Orthodox Church and suppresses others, referring to the 1997 Russian law, under which those religious organizations that could not provide official proof of their existence for the preceding 15 years were seriously restricted in their rights and ability to worship. The law was formally presented as a way to combat destructive cults, but was condemned by representatives of other religions and human rights organizations as being written in a manner that explicitly favored the Russian Orthodox Church. Consequently, this law gave full rights only to a small number of "traditional" religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.
Due to its deep cultural roots, many members of the Russian government are keen to display their respect for the Church. It is common for the President of Russia to publicly meet with the Patriarch on Church holidays such as Easter (Paskha or Пасха in Russian).
The Russian Orthodox Church is organized in a hierarchical structure. The highest level of authority is represented by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, head of the Moscow Patriarchate. Although the Patriarch of Moscow does have extensive powers, unlike the pope, he is not considered infallible and does not have the direct authority over matters pertaining to faith. This authority is instead given to a council of bishops (pomestny sobor). Some of the most fundamental issues (such as the ones responsible for the Catholic-Orthodox split cannot be decided even on this level and have to be dealt with by an Ecumenical Council of representatives from all Eastern Orthodox churches. The last time such a council was held was in 787 C.E.
Organizationally, all Russian Orthodox parishes in a geographical region belong to a specific Eparchy (equivalent to a Western diocese). Eparchies are governed by bishops (episkope or archierey). Further, some eparchies are organized into exarchates, or autonomous churches. Currently these include the Orthodox Temples of Belarusian exarchate; the Latvian, the Moldovan, and the Estonian Orthodox Temple of Moscow Patriarchate. The Chinese and Japanese Orthodox Temples were granted full autonomy by Moscow Patriarchate, but this autonomy is not universally recognized. Smaller eparchies are usually governed by a single bishop. Larger eparchies, exarchates, and autonomous temples are governed by Metropolitan archbishop and sometimes also have one or more bishops assigned to them. There are around 130 Russian Orthodox eparchies worldwide
Russian Orthodox Church buildings differ in design from many western-type churches. Firstly, their interiors are enriched with many sacramental objects including holy icons, which are hung on the walls. In addition, murals often cover most of the interior. Some of these images represent the Theotokos (who is particularly revered in the Russian Orthodox Church), saints, and scenes from their lives.
Gold is the color which resembles the Heavenly Kingdom. It is also used to add a sense of indefinite depth to icons, which would otherwise be perceived as flat. Painted icons are intentionally composed in a two-dimensional, non-perspective fashion to allow equal viewing regardless of the placement, position, and/or angle of the observing person, as well as to emphasize that the depiction is primarily of a spiritual truth rather than of visible reality (which emphasis is also achieved through other iconographic techniques and traditions).
Most Russian Orthodox churches have an iconostasis, which separates the nave from the holy altar, and signifies the Heavenly Kingdom. Covered with icons, the iconostasis is intended to stop physical sight, and allow the worshipers to achieve spiritual sight.
Another remarkable feature of many Russian Orthodox Church is, the icon screen may reach all the way up into the dome (or domes). On the ceiling of many churches (inside the main dome) is the iconography of Christ as Pantokrator ("Ruler of All"). Such images emphasize Christ's humanity and divinity, signifying that Christ is a man and yet is also God without beginning or end.
There are no pews. Most churches are lit with candles rather than electric light. Virtually all churches have multiple votive candle stands in front of the icons. It is customary for worshippers to purchase candles in church stores, light them up, and place them on the stands. This ritual signifies a person's prayer to God, the Holy Mother, or to the saints or angels asking for help on the difficult path to salvation and to freedom from sin.
Russian traders settled in Alaska during the 1700s. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska—to establish a formal mission in Alaska. Their missionary endeavors contributed to the conversion of many Alaskan natives to the Orthodox faith. A diocese was established, whose first bishop was Saint Innocent of Alaska. The headquarters of this North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was moved from Alaska to California around the mid-nineteenth century.
It was moved again in the last part of the same century, this time to New York. This transfer coincided with a great movement of Greek-Catholics to the Orthodox Church in the eastern United States. This movement, which increased the numbers of Orthodox Christians in America, resulted from a conflict between John Ireland, the politically powerful Roman Catholic Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Alexis Toth, an influential Ruthenian Catholic priest. Archbishop Ireland's refusal to accept Father Toth's credentials as a priest induced Toth to convert to the Orthodox Church, and further resulted in the conversion of tens of thousands of other Greek-Catholics in North America to the Orthodox Church, under his guidance and inspiration. For this reason, Ireland is sometimes ironically remembered as the "Father of the Orthodox Church in America." These Greek-Catholics were received into Orthodoxy into the existing North American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, large numbers of Greeks and other Orthodox Christians were also immigrating to America. At this time, all Orthodox Christians in North America were united under the omophorion (Church authority and protection) of the Patriarch of Moscow, through the Russian Church's North American diocese. The unity was not merely theoretical, but was a reality, since there was then no other diocese on the continent. Under the aegis of this diocese, which at the turn of the century was ruled by Bishop (and future Patriarch) Tikhon, Orthodox Christians of various ethnic backgrounds were ministered to, both non-Russian and Russian; a Syro-Arab mission was established in the episcopal leadership of Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, who was the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in America.
On December 28, 2006, it was officially announced that the Act of Canonical Communion would finally be signed between the ROC and ROCOR. The signing took place on the May 17, 2007, followed immediately by a full restoration of communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, celebrated by a Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, at which the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexius II and the First Hierarch of ROCOR concelebrated for the first time.
Under the Act, the ROCOR remains a self-governing entity within the Church of Russia. It is independent in its administrative, pastoral, and property matters. It continues to be governed by its Council of Bishops and its Synod, the Council's permanent executive body. The First-Hierarch and bishops of the ROCOR are elected by its Council and confirmed by the Patriarch of Moscow. ROCOR bishops participate in the Council of Bishops of the entire Russian Church.
In response to the signing of the act of canonical communion, Bishop Agafangel, and some parishes and clergy broke communion with ROCOR, and established a separate jurisdiction. Some others opposed to the Act have joined themselves to other Greek Old Calendarist groups.
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