Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Orthodox, Muslims Dominate Religious Life in St. Petersburg

Paul Goble

Baku, March 19 – Russian Orthodoxy and Islam now dominate religious life in Russia’s northern capital, with all the other faiths there – Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Protestantism – constituting only “micro communities” in that traditionally secular center, according to a new study released last week.
That study, a collective volume describing both religious life there in general and that of each community, was carried out by scholars from local universities and the Museum of the History of Religion. One of them, Anton Vinokur, has now discussed its findings in detail (http://www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=2187).
The St. Petersburg State University specialist on inter-ethnic relations said that after Russian Orthodoxy, Islam is far and away the largest and most active religious community there, even though its public face – a single mosque compared to 260 Orthodox churches – is much smaller than some of the others.
In addition to the historical mosque, Vinokur said, there are a large number of smaller groups of Muslims, most of which involve 150 to 200 members who are from one or another of the immigrant communities. The Shiite Akhlil-beit group, which attracts many of the city’s half million ethnic Azerbaijanis, is especially active.
But defining the number of actual believers is extremely difficult. On the one hand, people are free to choose whether or not to say they are religious. And on the other, some faiths are much stricter in requiring their adherents to participate in religious ceremonies than others.
Thus, for example, Islam requires its followers to show up at the mosque for key holidays whereas Orthodoxy is more permissive in that regard. Consequently, Vinokur added, it is a mistake to project from holiday attendance figures the total number of believers in any particular faith.
And at the same time, he continued, it is wrong to estimate the total number of actual believers on the basis of ethnicity. Some groups are far more likely than others to link their nationality to religion even if they are not faithful, and some have a much higher percentage of actual adherents than others do.
Thus, according to surveys, 80 percent of the Tatars of St. Petersburg identify themselves as Muslims, but the fraction of them who actually practice this faith is far lower. And at the same time, far more members of historically Islamic nations from the Caucasus are active Muslims than are those from the Middle Volga.
Indeed, the St. Petersburg scholar notes in passing, approximately 25 percent of the so-called “ethnic Muslims” in the North Caucasus practice their faith, far higher than historically Islamic communities or members of other “ethnic” faiths do anywhere else. And when Muslims from there move to other regions, they maintain this pattern.
And compounding these problems for anyone seeking to estimate the numbers of the various faiths in St. Petersburg is the fact that there are far more Muslims among unregistered immigrant communities than there are among the registered or long-term population of the city.
If the total numbers of the followers of various faiths are almost impossible to give, Vinokur said, it is possible to speak with more certainty about increases in the number of those who actively practice their faith in St. Petersburg. At present, Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims there are increasing at about 5-7 percent a year.
Vinokur also pointed to another finding of this study: growing religiosity among the old and the young and the continued lack of interest in religion among the middle aged. On the one hand, he said, this pattern suggests that the number of religious people in Russia is likely to increase.
But on the other, it means that youthful followers of all faiths are likely to be very different than their elders, with some of them modernizing and updating their religious ideas and practices but with others turning to more radical ideas, especially if no efforts are made to make traditional religions more accessible through the schools.

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