Monday, November 23, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russians Deeply Divided on Proper Relationship between Religion and Ethno-National Identity

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 23 – Reactions to the murder of Father Daniil Sysoyev, the Orthodox missionary who sought to bring to his faith both followers of other religions and members of non-Russian nationalities traditionally associated with other religions, highlight the deep divisions in Russian society over the relationship between religion and ethno-national identity.
Up to now, these differences have been reflected primarily in disagreements over just how many followers any particular religion has, with some insisting that all members of one or another ethnic community traditionally associated with their faith are to be counted as followers of that religion and others denying that there is a one-to-one relationship.
Thus, many Orthodox Christians insist that because the census shows that more than 75 percent of the citizens of the Russian Federation are ethnic Russians, a group traditionally associated with Orthodoxy, more than 75 percent of the population should be counted as Orthodox, even though studies show that only a small fraction of them practice the faith.
And equally many Islamic leaders insist that the number of Muslims in Russia includes all the members of the nationalities in the country that followed Islam in the past, even though some of these people have joined other denominations (as the Orthodox Christians point out) or follow no faith at all, as many investigations have shown.
Such perspectives have given rise to what scholars and commentators often refer to as “ethnic Orthodox” or, even more frequently, as “ethnic Muslims,” categories that have more to do with the practices of the populations involved in the past and the claims and hopes of religious leaders now and in the future.
But following Sysoyev’s murder and suggestions by some that missionary activity should be increased and even that “the second Christianization of Russia” take place, the relationship between religion, on the one hand, and ethno-national identity, on the other, is becoming far more sensitive to far more officials and members of the population. points out that at present there exist three competing ideas about the proper relationship of religion and ethnicity in Russia. The first holds, that “there is only one true religion, and all must accept it.” The second argues that “religion should be defined by tradition: a Russian must be Orthodox; a Tatar, Muslim, and a Jew, Jewish.”
And the third says that “religion is a subject of free choice, [that] each has the right to choose that which he or she considers to be true.” Because each of these ideas carries very different implications concerning not only missionary activity but state involvement in religious affairs, the news agency has surveyed a group of leading religious figures on their views.
Specifically, the religious leaders were asked whether they believed that these three ideas could “coexist” or were convinced that in contrast that “Russia must firmly attach itself to one or another of them” and use the power of the state to ensure that that idea is promoted and the others ruled out (
Orthodox Abbot Luka, a theological at Ryazan State University, argued that Moscow must proceed from “historical traditions,” according to which Russia must be recognized as “an Orthodox country.” According to him, “80 percent of the population of Russia considers itself to be Orthodox Christians.”
At the same time, however, the abbot says that “the Russian Orthodox Church will never force its faith on anyone but will always be open for repentance and prepared to interact with any individual.” All religions – but he lists only the four “traditional” ones -- in Russia have “equal rights,” he continues, and “no one is subjected to discrimination.”
Father Georgy Belodurov, an Orthodox pastor in Tver and an employee of the missionary administration of the Tver Eparchate, says that an individual’s choice of religion “is a voluntary step which is not defined by nationality.” For him as a missionary, “it is not important” whether standing before us is “a Russian or a Tatar, a Jew or a Muslim.”
For him and other Orthodox missionaries, he says, what is important is that “an individual is standing before us.” And in his understanding of the situation in the Russian Federation at the present time, that is the approach that religious leaders follow and should follow “in other confessions as well.”
But the Tver missionary concludes, “of course, the voluntary nature of the selection of a faith does not mean that attachment to this or that nationality does not have an impact.” Consequently, “the majority of Russians consider themselves Orthodox and so forth,” an indication that for him ethnicity does matter, although is not absolutely determinative.
Meanwhile, Mufti Albir-khazar Kurganov, the first deputy head of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (Central MSD), argues that what is most important in the Russian Federation is “not the co-existence of ideas but the co-existence of religions.” Were it otherwise, he adds, Russia would face serious difficulties as “a multi-national state.”
And Rushan-khazar Abbayasov, the head of the international department of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), says that religious choice cannot be other than freed. “The Almighty first of all looks at the soul of a man and not on what he says or the rites he performs.” Thus, it is wrong to think that “religious must be defined by nationality.”
“Every religion,” Abbayasov points out, “preaches that it is the best, and no one can forbid it to do so, but in [any particular] state [such as the Russian Federation], only the last idea can be acceptable – namely, the full freedom of choice of religion” on the part of each individual.
Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Groups in Russia (KEROOR), argues that “in order to preserve peace and agreement in society, [Russia] must combine all three ideas. But [at the same time] it is always important to remember that each person can follow whatever religion he considers necessary.”
And finally, Valentin Lebedev, the head of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, argues that “Russia remains both an Orthodox and at the same time a multi-confessional country.” He notes that “our Orthodox ancestors constructed a unique state in which peacefully co-exist various religions,” something that must continue “if we consider ourselves an empire.”

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