Saturday, May 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Medvedev May Make Orthodoxy Russia’s State Religion, Muslims Fear

Paul Goble

Baku, May 17 – Several Muslim leaders say that new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will continue the Kremlin’s tilt toward the Russian Orthodox Church, possibly even going as far as seeking to amend the Constitution to make that denomination a state religion and thus reducing Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and the others to that of merely “tolerated” faiths.
Some Muslim leaders say that Medvedev has done nothing more than honestly admit the relationship between the Kremlin and the Patriarchate that had emerged during Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term. Indeed, at least one gives him credit for making explicit what his predecessor always left outspoken.
Others say Medvedev is moving this direction either because the situation in the country has changed – Moscow could hardly declare Orthodoxy a state religion when it was fighting a war in the Caucasus – or because Medvedev’s wife, known for her religious enthusiasms and close ties to senior church hierarchs, will be pushing for this.
And still a third group says that the Muslim community of the Russian Federation has only itself to blame for this development, having failed to take advantage of the opportunities it has had in the past 20 years to create a single, powerful and authoritative organization that the Russian authorities would have no choice but to deal with.
But with rare exceptions, none of the advocates of any of these positions argues that Medvedev’s tilt toward Orthodoxy reflects either an anti-Muslim attitude on his part or will lead to a dramatic worsening in the way the Russian Federation’s 20 million-plus Muslims, given Moscow’s interest in expanding its relations with the Islamic world abroad.
Orkhan Dzhemal, a religious rights activist, for example, was among the Muslim leaders who told that Medvedev had said nothing so far to indicate that he was is planning to go beyond what “has long existed de facto.” But even if he does, Dzhemal said he doubted Muslims would “become second-class people” (
Damir Mukhetdinov, the deputy chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Nizhniy Novgorod, was less optimistic, although he was very explicit that he believes that it is not Medvedev who is to blame but rather the Patriarchate whose senior hierarchs have been pushing for a codification of their special status for years.
At the same time, the Nizhniy leader said that he also believes that Russia’s Muslims are to blame for what is happening: “They did not use those possibilities which they were offered over the course of 20 years, possibilities for development, unification, and active work in a single, constructive, and positive direction.”
Moreover, Mukhetdinov continued, the country’s Muslims had missed a chance for “the intensify development of religious education, the elevation of the general cultural level [of the Muslims of the Russian Federation], and the insistence on the observation of their [basic religious and civil] rights.”
Instead, he continued, Muslim leaders have covered each other in lies and engaged in fratricidal conflicts.” As a result, we are not in a position to defend the rights of imams … [and especially in the current environment] to defend the right of believers to read religious literature.”
Because the Muslims are divided, Mukhetdinov said, “it is entirely natural” that the Russian president should turn to the one religious institution in the country which is “more monolithic, firm, united and in which there are fewer disagreements.” Muslims simply cannot be taken “seriously” as “a strategic player at the state level.”
Consequently, what the Russian president is doing should serve as a wake-up call for Muslims before “changes are introduced in the Constitution, and Orthodoxy will be defined as the basic religion and all the others only faiths which have the right to exist, ‘tolerated’ so to speak.”
And other leaders, including Damir Khayretdinov, one of Russian Islam’s most distinguished historians, said that Muslims need to recognize that they are and remain in “the second or [even] third tier” in their relations with the government but also know that Medvedev personally is not personally “negatively” inclined toward Islam.
When the current Russian president was in Kazan, Khayretdinov noted, the president to be had said all the right things about Islam, something he would have been unlikely to do in the current environment if he really planned to do something radical toward the state’s relationship with the country’s traditional faiths.
But both the leaders surveyed and other observers suggest, the real wild card in this situation is Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana. She is not only actively religious but maintains extremely close ties with hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, something that may mean she will be a powerful advocate of its position (
At the present time, the current issue of Argumenty nedeli reported, she is working closely with Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the External Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, to promote her latest enthusiasm: the creation of a new holiday: The Day of Love, Family and Faithfulness, on the Day of the Orthodox saints, Peter and Fevronii.
Up to now, the weekly points out, “governmental structures do not yet have any relationship” with Svetlana Medvedeva’s plan, but her role as wife may make that a moot point in a country where informal personal relations rather than formal legal institutions often play the dominant role.

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