Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Crimes against Religious Leaders in Russia Likely to Trigger Witch Hunt

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 27 – The murder of Daghestani Mufti Akhmed Tagayev on Monday has attracted attention to a dangerous trend in Russian society – a rise in the number of attacks on religious leaders and property – and sparked the kind of anger in some quarters that could lead to witch hunts against groups some religious and political leaders do not like.
Officials at the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) told “Rossiiskaya gazeta” that “they were inclined to connect” Tagayev’s murder with his “professional activity,” noting that he was “one of the main ideologues” who opposed Wahhabism, thus implicitly implicating the latter in his death (
And Vladimir Bogdanov and Timur Aliyev, two journalists for the Moscow newspaper, suggest in an article published today, that religious “extremists” and “sects” of various kinds are behind the killings of more than 30 religious leaders in Russia, a trend they call “a dangerous tendency of our times.”
As the reporters note, Russian law enforcement officials do not keep statistics on crimes against religious leaders, but they say that in addition to the killings, more than 1,000 churches have been vandalized or even burned down and more than 35,000 icons stolen from them are still being sought.
The main motive for such crimes, interior ministry officials say, is theft, but the journalists report that there is growing evidence that in many cases members of “extremist” religious sects may be involved. In one recent case, a priest and his family in Tver appear to have been killed they suggest because he was an opponent of a group of “satanists.”
Another priest in Evenkia supposedly was killed at the order of Hare Krishnas, and a third, in Sverdlovsk, was killed by members of a local sect, at least according to his parishioners, Bogdanov and Aliyev report. Meanwhile, they note, on Sakhalin, a church was burned down after its priest called on officials to work against sectarian groups there.
“Many experts,” the reporters say without naming names, “do not exclude that we are dealing with an intentional campaign against the clergy. They point to the fact that the burning of churches and houses of priests are taking place mainly in rural areas,” where it is easier for criminals to get away with their crimes.
Moreover, these “experts” say, many of those involved are followers of “black cults,” but “however strange it may seem,” the “Rossiiskaya gazeta” journalists continue, “Satanism by itself I s not prohibited on the territory of Russia. Of course, murders are caught, but law enforcement officials try to exclude religion as a motivating factor – it is simpler that way.”
Militia officers “prefer ‘not to notice’ the ritual character of the murders. Otherwise, they would have to acknowledge that ‘not all religions are equally useful,’ and that there are cults, the activities of which must be blocked.” Consequently, the journalists say, the priests often are forced to confront this “visible and invisible evil” without help from the authorities.
“For a long time,” Bogdanov and Aliyev say, “there existed a severe taboo in the criminal world against crimes against the servants of God,” in large measure because the Russian Orthodox Church devotes so much attention to the children’s homes, hospitals and prisons in which many criminals find themselves.
But that limitation appears to be fading, and two years ago, they note, the Moscow city government considered legislation that would have increased penalties for crimes committed against the clergy. But neither that body nor the Russian Duma has adopted such legislation, and the results are there for all to see.
The message of this article and others like it in religious publications – see, for example, – is deeply troubling not only because of the increase of a type of crime that Russia has known relatively little of in the past but also because of what it says about the future.
Such articles and their suggestion that religious “sects” and “extremists” are being these crimes will be exploited by those like Aleksandr Dvorkin, the notorious “anti-sect” leader who heads the Russian Justice Ministry’s Experts Council for the Analysis of Religious Affairs, to promote a sweeping crackdown on all “non-traditional” religious groups.
(For a discussion of just how dangerous Dvorkin and his new position could prove, see Geraldine Fagan’s article, “Russia: A New Inquisition,” which was posted on the Forum 18 religious affairs portal yesterday at
And because Patriarch Kirill and the Russian officials who cooperate with him consider only four groups to be “traditional” – the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Islam under the control of MSDs, Judaism, and Buddhism – such an effort could threaten religious freedom more broadly in the Russian Federation.

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