Friday, November 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Has the War of Ideas in Russia Entered a Period of Physical Destruction?’

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 20 – The brutal murder last night of Father Daniil Sysoyev, a leading Russian Orthodox missionary to non-Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and atheists, coming in the wake of the shooting death on Monday of Anti-Fascist leader Ivan Khutorsky has prompted a Moscow commentator to ask: has “the war of ideas in Russia” entered a deadly period?
In an essay on the portal today, Sergey Taranov says that one “would not like to think that” those fighting over ideas, political or religious, are now willing to pursue “the physical destruction of opponents. But alas, the second such murder [in Moscow this week] points toward precisely that conclusion” (
If Taranov’s fears prove correct, religious and political figures in Russia could face even more violence in the near term, especially because both the supporters and opponents of Khutorsky and especially Sysoev have exacerbated tensions by the manner in which they have discussed the victims and those they believe are responsible for their deaths.
As Taranov points out, Father Daniil was “an exceptional and significant figure in the Russian Orthodox Church,” an active missionary, preacher, writer and blogger – in a word, a pastor of the new post-Soviet type, who “openly struggled with other confessions, with heresies within Orthodoxy, with pagans, and even with Old Believers.”
Because he had been so openly at odds with other groups as well as with some Orthodox Christians and many Russian officials who fear that open missionary activity in Russia among “traditional” faiths can be destabilizing, Sysoyev had many enemies and by his own account and that of the authorities had been threatened with violence 14 times in recent years.
As one would expect, all prominent religious leaders of the Russian Federation, from Patriarch Kirill to the heads of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), have denounced the murder as a heinous crime, but even some of their spokesmen have added fuel to the fires of inter-faith hostility.
As Taranov notes, Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, said he believes that Sysoyev was killed “precisely because of his active position” as a missionary. And Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev added that Sysoyev’s killing was “religiously motivated” and that Father Daniil must be added to the ranks of “the new Russian martyrs.”
Kurayev’s remarks are especially inflammatory because while most of the new Russian martyrs were victims of an officially atheistic state that no longer exists, Sysoyev was killed by either by a Muslim radical or by someone interested in having the Muslims take the blame for a representative of a group still very much present and against whom some may now seek revenge.
Over the last several years, Muslim writers have taken the lead in criticizing Sysoyev, although they have not been alone. Khalid Khamidullin, a Muslim journalist, asked prosecutors to investigate the missionary because, according to Khamidullin, Sysoyev’s sermons were filled with “hatred toward Islam and toward Muslims.”
Among Sysoyev’s writings that most offended the Islamic community was his pamphlet “Marriage with a Muslim” in which the priest said that “in contrast to the opinion of many [including many in the Orthodox Church] both the word of God and the rules of the Church condemn marriages between Christians and followers of other faiths,” including Muslims.
Also offensive to Muslims and to many in the Patriarchate were Sysoyev’s views that there is no basis for Orthodox-Islamic dialogue, that “peaceful coexistence of these religions was possible under a strong Christian or civil power,” and that Christians should do everything possible to limit the spread of Islam and promote the conversion of Muslims.
Such views could help explain but of course in no way justify “an act of revenge” by Muslim extremists, Taranov writes, but the Islamist version “is not the only one for the murder of Sysoyev.” Investigators admit he might have been killed by pagans. But if the murder was motivated by religious feelings of any kind, that could have serious consequences.
Archdeacon Kurayev, for instance, suggested today that “Father Daniil, his message, and martyr’s end will become a symbol of the rebirth of missionary activity of our Church.” It that is so, it could call into question the shaky “inter-confessional peace” in Russia, a peace founded on the principle of “peaceful co-existence.”
For most of the last decade, the leaders of Russia’s four “traditional” faiths – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism – have sought to avoid clashes by committing themselves not to engage in missionary efforts among the traditional followers of the other four even as they fought “alien tendencies, sects, and proselytism from abroad – from Wahhabis to Scientologists.”
Kurayev’s words and the overheated atmosphere in the Russian media over Sysoyev’s murder could mean, Taranov points out, that this armistice is about to break down and that the Russian Orthodox Church may soon “open a second front in its ideological struggle” with followers of traditional faiths, of whom the largest non-Orthodox group is Islam.
Taranov certainly hopes that won’t happen, and he even suggests there is reason to think that cooler heads will prevail. Since Aleksandr Men was killed in September 1990, he notes, 21 Orthodox priests have been killed in Russia – and even more Muslim religious leaders in the North Caucasus – and the armistice among the faiths has nonetheless held.
But equally clearly the Moscow commentator is worried that the murder of Sysoyev, someone who made missionary work among Muslims one of his central efforts, will threaten not only this inter-confessional arrangement but also and more generally the already troubled relations between Christians and Muslims in the Russian Federation.

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