Vienna, April 18 – The Kremlin’s elevation of the Russian Orthodox Church to a position approaching that of a state religion threatens the Russian Federation’s territorial integrity just as the absence of freedom of conscience and a civil society earlier led to the destruction of the Russian Empire and the USSR, according to a leading Russian mullah.
At an inter-university conference in Moscow last week on “Russia and the Contemporary World,” Arslan Sadriyev, the imam-mukhtasib of Moscow oblast, warned that the Russian government’s open backing of Orthodoxy against other faiths could destroy the country (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2007-04-17/#16009).
In his presentation to the meeting’s session on “Religious Pluralism and Civil Society,” Sadriyev argued that “first the Russian Empire in 1917 and then the USSR in 1991 collapsed because of injustices in inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations and because of the absence of freedom of conscience and civil society.”
“Can it be that we want such a sad outcome for contemporary Russia?” he asked. It would seem so, given Moscow’s growing deference to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Instead, he urged, “Let people freely choose their lifestyle and faith – either by the example of their ancestors or as a result of their own searching.”
“Only a country [with those opportunities] will be one they will always want to defend,” the imam said, implying but not saying that in the absence of such freedoms, many non-Orthodox will not view the Russian Federation in its current form and borders something that they and their children will be prepared to defend.
Other speakers at this session were deeply divided on the importance of religious pluralism for Russia. On the one hand, both Muslim and Protestant religious and human rights activists issued warnings about the consequences of elevating Orthodoxy almost as dire as those of Sadriyev.
But on the other, a senior official of the Moscow Patriarchate and a leading Russian nationalist television personality not only dismissed these concerns but celebrated the special role Russian Orthodoxy currently does and, in their view, should play in the future of the country.
Among the supporters of pluralism, Dzhannat Sergei Markus, an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam and has served as the host of radio shows about Muslims in the Russian Federation, argued that Moscow should adopt the same “multi-vector” approach domestically as it has in its dealings with the outside world.
“In the complex contemporary work,” he continued, “it is fatal to stand on one leg” as support for one faith above all others inevitably means.
Sergei Mozgovoy and Sergei Buryanov of the Institute of Freedom of Conscience added that the Russian government’s current approach to religious life has transformed the Orthodox church into “a state religion” standing not only against but also above all the others.
And they suggested that the Church is exploiting its special position to attack its competitors not only through a massive information campaign but also by the imposition on Russian discourse of terms like “’sect’” and “’traditional religion’” whose definitions are not only unscientific but unconstitutional as well.
Both Vladimir Ryakhovskiy of the Slavic Legal Center and sociologist Enver Kisriyev also supported that argument, with the first suggesting that the Kremlin has driven all non-Orthodox groups out of public life and latter arguing that civil society has already disappeared in Russia as a result.
And finally, Mark Smirnov, the editor of religious affairs journal “NG-Religii,” said that Russia’s future depends to a great degree on whether there will be “freedom of conscience and equality of all religons” or not and whether there will be “a civil society” or something else entirely.
But those arguing in support of a special position for Russian Orthodoxy and against religious pluralism were equally explicit. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the deputy head of the Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, said that Russia must not follow Western models of social and political development.
And Mikhail Leont’yev, who works for Moscow’s First Channel and has often backed Russian nationalist causes, argued the onslaught of foreign ideas had left the Moscow Patriarchate with no choice but to assume “a leading political role” in the Russian Federation as the “state-forming” religion.
At the university sessions in Moscow last week, the supporters of religious pluralism came out on top, but in Russia as a whole, those who back a special and elevated role for the Russian Orthodox church appear to be winning, however dangerous that position may be for Russian democracy and even Russia itself.