Thursday, February 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Religious Tolerance in Russia Rests on Respect for Peoples rather than for Human Rights, Senior Moscow Official Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 5 -- Tolerance for people of different faiths in Russia has a very different foundation than is the case in most other countries, according to the senior Moscow official responsible for the Russian government’s relations with religious organizations. It has “more to do,” he says, “with the rights of the people and not with human rights.”
And because that is so, Andrey Sebentsev, the chief of the department for relations with social and religious organizations in the Russian government’s Mass Communications Department, said, it cannot serve as a model for other countries despite suggestions by some Russian officials in recent times (
As a result of their historical experience, he told an international conference in Moscow on Monday, most Russians closely link religion and ethnicity. Thus, for them, “an ethnic Russian should be Orthodox, a Tatar or Bashkir – a Muslim, a Pole – a Catholic and so on.” And that view is so deeply rooted that it cannot be easily changed even though circumstances have.
Indeed, he continued, any deviation from this pattern, whether it be when a Russian becomes a Muslim or a Bashkir an Orthodox Christian is “conceived as a certain deviation from the norm,” with such “’strange’ people’” often being viewed as “sectarians” and treated as outcasts by the ethnic community of which they are a part
“If in Soviet times, [such people] were persecuted by the state, now, their mistreatment comes from those ‘whom one can call Orthodox sectarian specialists.’” And that “exerts an influence on law enforcement and legislative action, where there have been ‘many proposals for restricting the realization of freedom of conscience.”
Sebentsev’s comments reveal more than he may have intended. On the one hand, they help to explain why Russian officials as well as ordinary Russian citizens are willing to accept the regular claims by religious leaders that all members of this or that nationality are members of this or that religious group, regardless of whether all the members are believers or not.
On the other, his acknowledgement that tolerance for religious differences ultimately rests on respect for peoples rather than respect for human rights not only highlights the influence of newly enthroned Patriarch Kirill who has argued that position for the last decade but also why appeals cast in terms of human rights so often fall on deaf ears in Moscow.
Both the one and the other, moreover, help to explain why popular and political support for religious rights and freedom of conscience do not have the firm and universalist foundations that exist in many Western countries and why the rights and freedoms are so often restricted or openly violated.
In addition to this key admission, Sebentsev’s speech contained three other important points. First, he said that overall, the religious situation in Russia now can be considered “quite stable,” although “this stability,” he suggested, “is hardly stagnation” because “it is filled with [its own] internal dynamic.”
In support of that, the Russian official pointed to the following facts: “over the last few years, the number of registered religious organizations has not changed significantly; the new religious movements essentially have been formed; no major changes have taken place in legislation [about religion];” and public discussion of religious issues has not led to explosions.
Second, Sebentsev said that if the situation of religious life in Russia was generally stable, conditions in the Islamic community are “not completely peaceful,” a reflection of the absence of a single controlling center, the dramatic growth in the number of often competing Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), and a dawning “generational change” in the muftiate.
If most of the senior people in place in the MSDs now were trained in the medressah and Higher Islamic Institute within the Soviet Union, the rising generation of Muslim leaders consists of “young people who have received training in Arab countries” and who are very “critical of the older generation.”
Not only are these new people “separated from the traditions of the past,” Sebentsev continued, but they are supported by “those countries where they received their training. The region where the rise of this generation appears set to cause the greatest difficulty is the North Caucasus, “where radical Islamic trends receive support” from those with ties to terrorists.
And third, the senior official said, because the state does not have a clearly defined policy on religious affairs, the denomination that forms the largest part of the population in a particular region often sets the tone for what the government does, with Orthodoxy, for example, doing that in ethnic Russian regions and Islam playing that role in Muslim ones.
For those of other faiths and especially those not considered “traditional” religions, Sebentsev continued, it is often difficult and sometimes impossible for them to gain access to the authorities or to secure support for building religious institutions or other goals. And those problems often strike members of these groups as openly discriminatory.
“At the same time,” he said, “one must not say that this difference in the relationship of the powers that be to religious organizations ‘creates supportive conditions for traditional communities [of the Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists] and does not leave a place for the freedom of conscience of the followers of other organizations.”
According to Sebentsev, “one of the causes of that is the gap typically for [Russia] between constitutional norms which presuppose the equality of citizens and religious organizations before the law and their realization which is dictated by public consciousness which’ sometimes transforms the content of the Constitution beyond recognition.’”

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