Vienna, August 25 – Despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s statement yesterday that the Russian military will employ chaplains from all his country’s “traditional” religions, the Russian defense ministry has decided to name chaplains from any one of those faiths only to units in which at least ten percent of personnel are “active believers.”
If Medvedev’s statement effectively excludes religious leaders who are not Russian Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, the ministry’s decision will both limit the number of non-Russian Orthodox chaplains and prompt commanders to make appointments on religious grounds thereby highlighting religious differences and exacerbating inter-religious tensions.
Yesterday, during a visit to Buryatia, Medvedev said that “despite the financial crisis,” the Russian government has the funds necessary to support the country’s “traditional” faiths, including Buddhism, and to go forward with religious instruction in the schools and the establishment of salaried chaplains (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=31693).
In his response to the Russian president’s words, Damba Ayusheyev, the head of the Buddhist Traditional Sanghi of Russia, welcomed this support, saying that it would obviate any need for accepting money from abroad. In addition, he provided new details about Moscow’s plans for the chaplaincy corps, which initially will number 200 to 250 state-paid positions.
According to Ayusheyev, the Russian defense ministry has decided to support chaplains from a particular faith when more than ten percent of the individuals in a given unit are “active believers” and that to ensure this happens the defense ministry plans to appoint someone responsible for “the status of Buddhists in the Russian army.”
Not surprisingly, most representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church were enthusiastic: they clearly will be the biggest beneficiaries of these arrangements. But spokesman for other faiths, including both non-traditional religions like Protestantism and Catholicism and traditional ones like Islam, were less enthusiastic.
Damir Gizatullin, the deputy chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), suggested that it was not right to say that the religious needs of people in the uniformed services should be satisfied only if such people form more than 10 percent of the total in a unit. He said even “half a percent” should be sufficient to allow for a chaplain to be assigned.
Ismail-Haji Berdiyev, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Karachayevo-Cherkesia and Stavropol Kray, agreed, arguing that chaplains should be assigned not on the basis of percentages but rather in terms of absolute numbers. Shariat law, he noted, requires, that there be an imam whenever there are 40 Muslims in one place.
And at least some Orthodox priests agree. Archpriest Oleg Stenyayev, a pastor at a church in Sokolniki, said that in his view, it is terribly important that the Russian military provide Muslim troops with imams so that the troops can be instructed in “traditional Islam” and thus avoid becoming radicalized (www.regions.ru/news/2234660/)
But the dangers of exactly that were highlighted today by Mikhail Pozdnyaev in “Novyye izvestiya.” He notes that there are problems with defining who is an “active believer,” given that surveys show that 63 percent of Russian soldiers identify themselves as “believers” in any sense but that “only 10 percent are active” (www.newizv.ru/news/2009-08-25/113620/).
And while one recent poll found that of the believers in uniform, 87 percent say they are Orthodox, 13 percent say they are Muslims, three percent identify as Buddhists and one as Jews, those numbers ignore the numerous followers of various branches of Old Believers, the increasingly activist Protestants, and Catholics as well.
Given that pattern, Russian commanders will have many opportunities both to shift people around to guarantee that their religious preferences, almost in every case, Orthodox, will ensure that non-Orthodox will not meet the 10 percent quota in a unit and thus will not be assigned a chaplain from their faith or faiths.
Even if the abuses in this regard are limited, the military’s attention to religion that this system will require is certain to heighten inter-religious tensions and a sense, among the Russian Federation’s increasingly large religious minorities, that Moscow is openly discriminating against them in this key sphere of life.
One Buddhist leader, Rigzen-lama of the Lamrin Community, told Pozdnyaev that problems of this kind suggest that the Russian defense ministry might be better off by simply “continuing” the current “practice of inviting to the territory of a military unit a religious leader depending on the confessions of military personnel.”
“Introducing a government-paid individual is totally unnecessary and the question of redressing a spiritual leader in camouflage is completely absurd,” Rigzen-lama continued, because under such arrangements “all religious leaders will be subordinate not to God but to a general officer.”