Baku, January 23 – Russia’s Muslim leaders hope to sign an agreement with the Russian military this year, regularizing their work with service personnel and thus putting it on the same basis that the Russian Orthodox Church has had with that country’s armed services for more than a decade.
Russia’s mullahs and muftis have worked with soldiers for the last 15 years, but up to now, these activities, which include organizing prayers, supplying religious literature, and providing counseling, have depended on agreements between individual religious leaders and individual commanders, often below field grade in rank.
The leaders of some Muslim communities have been very active in this area but others have not, and some officers have been enthusiastic about their participation in military life but many have refused the Muslims access, either from a commitment to Russian Orthodoxy or a belief that no religions should be active among soldiers.
Now, however, with the percentage of “ethnic” Muslims running as high as 30 or 40 percent in some units and with President Vladimir Putin expressing his support for all of Russia’s “traditional” faiths, of which Islam is one, Muslim leaders and senior commanders are exploring the possibility of a kind of concordat between them.
The precedent for such an agreement is the series of accords signed by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Defense in the mid-1990s. Those documents give the clergy access to troops regardless of the personnel opinions of junior officers.
The Patriarchate has used these agreements not only to send its priests into units throughout the country and build churches specifically for service personnel but also to press for a government-funded corps of chaplains. And to this end, it has set up a special department for work with the military and security services.
The smaller, poorer, and less centralized Muslim community has lagged behind, but this week, the two largest Muslim groups in the Russian Federation – the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) under Ravil’ Gainutdin and the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) under Talgat Tajuddin – said that they believe their time has come.
A spokesman for the SMR told the press that it is doing so because “one of the main tasks of Muslim organizations is the strengthening of the defense capabilities of Russia. … Service in the army is one of the basic obligations of a Muslim because in this way he defends” his country (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2008-01-21/#19358).
And a representative of the Central MSD said that the time for a general agreement had arrived because there are now more Muslim soldiers and “our servicemen need spiritual instruction. But officials in that Ufa-based organization indicated that they have another compelling reason for seeking a broader accord.
During the last year, they said, the Central MSD has worked with the defense ministry to “rebury according to Muslim rites the remains of dozens of Muslim soldiers, including those from fraternal graves in Tallinn.” And in the year ahead, he added, “our Islamic organization will increase its work in this direction.”
Neither the SMR nor the Central MSD, however, pointed to an additional reason for their decision to press for an accord now: Both are being pushed by the heads of Muslim groups subordinate to them, and each may fear that they could lose control over them if they do not try to keep in the lead.
One of the subordinate groups that has been particularly active is the MSD of Karelia, whose leadership has worked actively over the last several years to reach agreements with military and security service commanders in that northwestern republic (www.islamrk.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=372&Itemid=12).
But other regional MSDs – including those in Tatarstan, Vladimir, Orenburg, and Sakhalin – and neither Gainutdin nor Tajuddin is interested in seeing any of those groups getting ahead of them or in failing to get an accord with the Russian military before a new shift in the political winds in Moscow might make that impossible.