Vienna, October 9 – The Russian government is calling on the United Nations to create a special permanent forum for high-level inter-religious dialogue based on “the Russian model of inter-religious relations” to promote “the exchange of opinions between representatives of the basic world confessions.”
The idea, supported by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the UN General Assembly debates in September, was discussed at the end of last week at a special meeting in New York. Representing Moscow at its sessions were Deputy Foreign Minister A.V. Yakovenko and Russian Orthodoxy Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg.
In a press release on this session, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “the Russian model of inter-religious relations has long been based on respect for the faith of different peoples, the way of life of traditional communities, and the organization of the family and society on the basis of their principles.”
And as a result of its approach, the ministry release continued, the Russian government has “created conditions for civil peace and strengthened stability.” And throughout its history Russia, the release said, thus “has not known religious wars.”
Obviously, diplomats are expected to put the best possible face on their country’s situation, especially at meetings like th eone in New York last week, but this latest claim by Moscow was called into question by five events that took place even as the Russian diplomat, the Russian cleric, and the Russian foreign ministry were making it.
First, last week marked the 16th anniversary of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s decree expelling from the Russian capital “persons of Caucasus nationality,” a decree that has been copied by many other Russian cities and that continues to be used against Muslim groups (http://www.nr2/moskow/143471.html).
Second, last week was also the anniversary of the Russian occupation of Kazan in 1552, an event that several commentaries suggested certainly does not correspond to the Russian foreign ministry’s suggestion that Russia has never known religious wars (http://www.polit.ru/author/2007/10/05/kazan.html).
Third, Circassians held protests against Moscow’s plans to ignore their interests during the Sochi Olympics and its ongoing efforts to portray the inclusion of their lands in the Russian state as voluntary – despite the expulsion of more than a million of their ancestors a century ago (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=13420).
Fourth, last week also marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of Russia’s Freedom of Conscience law, a measure that participants at a conference suggested had led to greater state involvement in the internal affairs of Russia’s Muslims rather than greater liberties (http://www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=876).
Specifically, experts said, Moscow had used divisions within Russia’s Muslim community based on the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) system to justify taking actions on behalf of Russia’s Muslims even if such actions were not what that community would want (http://www.islamnews.ru/index.php?name=News&op=News&sid=7630).
And fifth, Russian writers pointed to rising Christian-Muslim tensions in the North Caucasus as a possible trigger for a new and more violent conflict there (http://www.fondsk.ru/print.php?id=995) and to growing problems between residents and Muslim migrants to Russian cities (http://www.ami-tass.ru/print/27863.html).
Creating a permanent forum for the discussion of religious affairs at the United Nations is not necessarily a bad idea. Indeed, as Metropolitan Valentin quite properly observed last week, many of the clashes between religions are based on ignorance, either about the faith of others or even one’s own.
But to be useful for the international community, as opposed to a single country or group of countries, such a dialogue needs to be based on a respect for facts not on false claims however attractive they may be to some. And as last week’s news demonstrates, a claim that Russia has never known serious religious conflicts is simply disingenuous.