Thursday, September 20, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Patriarch Guilty of ‘Disinformation’ on Orthodox-Islamic Relations in Russia, Muslim Journalist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 20 – Patriarch Aleksii II’s claim last week that his church has “no problems” with the Muslim community of the Russian Federation represents a classic case of “disinformation,” according to Dzhannat Sergei Markus, a leading Muslim journalist in Moscow.
Indeed, Markus says in an interview with the religious affairs site, Aleksii’s statement is so at odds with the facts that it is difficult if not impossible to imagine who or what drove the Patriarch to risk his reputation by putting forth such a patently false notion (
The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church made his claim at a September 13th meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, and his remarks were played up not only by Interfax and other Russian news agencies but also by Western media outlets as well.
In his interview, which was posted online yesterday, Markus said that the relatively peaceful coexistence of many religions in Russia was a genuine “achievement.” But to assert as the Patriarch does that the Orthodox Church has no problems simply flies in the face of the facts.
And to support his contention, Markus pointed to the veritable media war between Orthodox and Muslim leaders over the possible introduction of religious instruction in Russia’s public schools, something the Patriarchate wanted, the Muslims opposed, and that President Vladimir Putin has now blocked.
Among the comments made by Orthodox leaders during this debate, Markus noted, many were openly defamatory of Russia’s Muslims. Metropolitan Kirill’s deputy, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, and Father Vladimir Vigil’yanskiy, the Patriarchate’s spokesman, pointedly suggested that Muslims, who oppose such instruction should “find themselves another country.”
Deacon Andrei Kurayev was even more outspoken on this issue, condemning Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov in vulgar terms and suggesting that “mixed” marriages between Orthodox Russians and Muslims carried with them the threat of “the genocide of the Russian people.”
And Father Daniil Sysoyev, who heads an Orthodox mission to Muslims in the Middle Volga, went even further, Markus said. If such mixed marriages continue to grow in number, he said, “the Ancient Enemy will come in the gates of our fortress without the slightest resistance,” adding that this is a battle “between the People of the Holy Scriptures and the people of jihad.”
Obviously, not all Orthodox leaders share these views, Markus acknowledged, but it significant that Aleksii and the other senior hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate have not attempted to discipline or otherwise restrain these clerics, limiting themselves to false claims like Aleksii’s.
In other comments, the Muslim journalist noted that the debate between Orthodoxy and Islam is asymmetrical. Muslims, he points out, are required by the Koran to respect Christians while the Orthodox Church, unlike many other Christian denominations, operates under no such limitations.
Indeed, the prominent Muslim television journalist pointed out, “to this day, the sharply negative assessment of Islam which the Universal Church Conclaves gave [centuries ago] continues to dominate the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
And Markus concluded by taking issue with one of Aleksii’s subsidiary claims: that Russia’s ten-year-old Inter-Religious Council has promoted the exchange of information among and improved the relationships between the four “traditional” faiths that are its members.
Only few hours after the Patriarch said this, Markus notes, the deputy head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Nizhniy Novgorod Damir Mukhetdinov spoke about how most of Russia’s Muslims view the Council and its contributions to inter-faith understanding.
“It is very sad,” Mukhetdinov said, that “in Russia up until now there has not emerged a regular theological dialogue between us and the Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate.” Instead, its leaders have used the Inter-Religious Council to boost Roman Silant’yev, “an ethno-cartographer” into the status of “a well-known Islamic specialist.”
(Silant’yev, it will be remembered, is the author of two books about Russia’s Muslims. Because of his sharp attacks at some of the leaders of that country’s Islamic community, he lost his job as executive secretary of the Inter-Religious Council and now works as a human rights expert for the World Russian Popular Assembly.}
Indeed, Mukhetdinov noted, to add insult to injury, the Moscow Patriarchate has chosen to conduct a dialogue with the Muslim world “not with the Sunnis of Russia but with … the Shiites in Iran.”
In an interview posted online today, Silant’yev seeks to justify the Church’s refusal to conduct theological discussions with the leaders of Russia’s Muslim community, advancing an argument that confirms rather than refutes Markus’s observations (
There are three reasons why the Patriarchate does not do so, Silant’yev said: First, “there are no theologians” in the entourages of Russia’s Muslim leaders. Second, a statement by one Muslim leader that the Koran might be treated as “the third testament” is both “laughable” and a violation a prior of any basis for dialogue.
And third, Muslim claims that Islam arrived in Russia earlier than Orthodoxy are simply historically incorrect, Silant’yev argues. Such assertions, he continues, create the impression that “none of them has heard about the travels of the Apostle Andrew” in the first century of the Christian era.
This last comment, of course, fails to note that reports about Andrew reaching the territory of what is now Russia are far from confirmed and that, in any case, Russia did not exist as an organized state or community for more than a millenium after that time. Islam, in contrast, arrived in what is now southern Russia in the eighth century.
But even more to the point, Silant’yev’s suggestion that there are no theologians worthy of speaking with in Russian Islam is not one that other Muslims share: Some of the Iranian theologians with whom the Church is talking are also and already talking to Russia’s Muslim leadership (

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