Vienna, August 21 – Even though the concept of “traditional religions” is nowhere defined in Russian legislation, the Moscow Patriarchate appears to be close to convincing the Russian government to permit military chaplains only from the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
Such an arrangement would prevent Old Believers, Protestants, Catholics and others from having their own chaplains, a discriminatory arrangement Protestant leaders say is dangerous because they are both the fastest growing denominations and form an increasing share of those in uniform because birthrates among them have not fallen as much as others.
And even as Orthodox and Protestant leaders fight over this, a leading specialist on law and religion argues that the appointment of chaplains not only may allow some faiths to conduct missionary activity at the expense of others but also lead to heightened tensions along religious lines among uniformed personnel.
Col. Igor Sergeyenko, head of the defense ministry’s department for patriotic education and ties with social and religious organizations, said at a Moscow press conference yesterday that the Russian military plans to create a small chaplaincy corps of several hundred religious over the next few years (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=4&id=29200).
The new corps will be introduced in two stages, he said. This year, regimental religious leaders will be introduced in military units abroad and in the North Caucasus military district where he suggested “the need for spirituality is greatest.” Then in 2010, chaplains will appear in all other military districts.
Many issues about chaplains remain to be decided, Sergeyenko continued, but they will be addressed by a working group within the General Staff that is to include commanders as well as representatives of religious organizations. And it is clear that this body will be the site of major conflicts between Orthodox and Protestant groups.
Already at the same press conference, leaders of the two squared off. Archpriest Mikhail Vasiliyev who serves in the Patriarchate’s department for cooperation with the army and fleet, a department that has already attached 2000 priests in the Russian armed services, spoke out sharply against allowing Protestants to serve as chaplains.
In his view, and presumably in the view of the Orthodox Church, many of them represent “destructive sects,” among whom he named the Pentecostals, whose members, he said, cannot be trusted to live up to their military oaths. And consequently, the archpriest continued, they should not be allowed to have chaplains (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4A8D29AA882F0).
Bishop Konstantin Bendas, a senior official of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (ROSKhV), responded that it was not true that the Pentecostals refuse to serve honorably, although he acknowledged that his church does support alternative service for those who would believe that is what their beliefs require.
He pointed out that “Russian Protestants have always called for the introduction of the institution of army religious but insist that Protestant draftees be given the opportunity to realize their constitutional right to profess their faith in military conditions, alongside and equally with Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists.”
“Every year,” the bishop continued, “hundreds of young Protestants are drafted into the army,” because “at the beginning of the 1990s when the current draftees were born,” birthrates declined far less among Protestants than among Orthodox groups. And consequently, the relative size of the former has increased markedly in recent years.
Archpriest Mikhail shot back that he had serious doubts about Bendas’ right to call himself a bishop” and pointedly noted that “in every draft [in Russia in recent years], there appear people from sects to whom it has to be explained that the taking of the military oath does not contradict Christianity.”
As a result, Mikhail continued, it was absolutely necessary to prevent the “penetration” of such “destructive sects” into the army. But Bendas responded by saying that he feared that the Russian Orthodox Church, under the guise of combating “sects,” would engage in missionary work among draftees.
Today, in an article in “Novoye voyennoye obozreniye,” Anatoly Pchelintsev, the editor of “Religion and Law,” addressed some of the broader legal and sociological issues that the introduction, or more properly re-introduction, of a chaplaincy corps in the Russian military will inevitably involve (nvo.ng.ru/forces/2009-08-21/5_religion.html?mpril).
The legal specialist said that it was high time to have a chaplaincy corps, but he suggested that the way in which the defense ministry, which appears to be guided by the thinking of the Russian Orthodox Church, was proceeding was “not productive” and entailed three serious problems.
First, he said, the attempt to limit the chaplaincy corps to representatives of the four “traditional” faiths was wrong and counterproductive. At the very least, Pchelintsev said, he would create a coordinating council within the defense ministry on which there would be representatives not only of the four traditional faiths but also Protestants and Catholics as well.
Second, he said, the defense ministry is trying to create the corps without addressing the legal problems involved. Paragraph 8 of the law governing the status of military personnel specifies that commanders are not responsible for ensuring “the freedom of conscience of military personnel.”
If that is not repealed, the legal specialist continued, it would be difficult for chaplains to do their work – all the more so because as the law stands now, Russian soldiers have fewer religious rights than do those of prisoners of war under the terms of the 1949 Geneva Convention.
And third, Pchelintsev concluded, the military has to become more transparent on this issue. Otherwise, religious conflicts and “religious dedovshchina” in which “the religious minority will persecute the religious minority” are certain to arise. Indeed, he said, he has “already encountered incidents of this.”