Baku, May 26 – The informal agreement among Russia’s traditional religions not to proselytize among communities whose members have traditionally followed a different faith appears to be quickly breaking down, a development that sets the stage for new conflicts arising from Christian efforts to recruit Muslims and Muslim efforts to recruit Christians.
For the last decade, the leaders of each of the four “traditional” faiths have proclaimed that they will not conduct missionary work among the others, a claim that their subordinates have generally but not always followed and one that has helped to keep the peace among Russia’s religious.
With the coming to office of Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Orthodox Church’s assumption that he will tilt state policy ever more in their direction, however, that accord appears to be breaking down, with the Patriarchate expanding its missionary activities among Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, and some Muslims among historically Christian groups.
Because so many missionary activities occur at the local level and are not trumpeted by leaders, it is difficult to trace just what is going on, all the more so since many religious leaders are aware that too public a shift by them could provoke a reaction not only by other religious groups but also by the Russian state.
But on Friday, the Regions.ru news portal published interviews with representatives of various faiths in Russia about what they believe are the emerging “rules of missionary work,” about what they can do and what they must not do lest they upset the balance and confessional peace that has generally existed in Russia (www.regions.ru/news/2144201/).
One of the ways in which missionaries have sought to operate below the radar screen in Russia is to maintain “confessional anonymity,” that is, to present themselves not as representatives of this or that faith but rather as simply religiously committed individuals interested in helping others to find their faiths.
Apparently, that tactic is now being employed so often and by so many that senior religious leaders are concerned. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the deputy director of the Patriarchate’s powerful external affairs department, for example, has denounced the practice, apparently fearful that it undermines church doctrine.
Archpriest Boris Mikhailov, who is the pastor of the major Orthodox Church in Fili near Moscow, also rejects this practice. A missionary, he says, “must respect local national and religious traditions” and he must “clearly and precisely explain what confession or denomination he represents.” To do otherwise is duplicitous.
And Aleksandr Burkin, an Orthodox activist and advisor to the justice ministry, added that Russia is in trouble now because its law on religion does not discuss missionary activity beyond opposing it. As a result, what missionary work that is being carried out often violates the principles of the faiths involved and even good sense.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “almost no one in the Russian Orthodox Church is dealing with this problem, and people who want to deal with it are viewed with a certain suspicion.” His own group, “Orthodox Russia,” has organized some 1500 missionary courses over the last year, but “we cannot do anything alone.”
Speaking for the Muslim community, Rushan-khazrat Abbyasov, the head of the international department of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), said that Muslim leaders are now working to “structure” the faith’s missionary activity to ensure that those involved in it are fully qualified.
“From our point of view,” he continued, those who represent the faith must be educated people, who have received advanced religious (and when possible secular) education.” That way, when they speak to others, the others can be sure that what they are hearing is authoritative and not simply the personal view of the individual saying it.
Konstantin Bendas, the first deputy head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians, said that missionaries have every legal and theological right to become more active but in doing so, they must meet the highest ethical norms and treat “with respect the traditions and way of life of the people among whom they are preaching.”
And Rabbi Zinoviy Kogan, the president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Unions in Russia (KEROOR), agreed, but perhaps because his own faith does less proselytizing, he said it was important to fight “false missionaries” both through the legal system and through religious education. Otherwise, the country will face serious dangers.
But whatever these leaders said to Regions.ru – a news service that regularly queries them about religious issues of various kinds – many, especially in Orthodox Russian and Muslim areas are likely to view any upsurge in missionary activity as entailing other and perhaps equally serious dangers as well.