Key West, February 10 – Fifty percent of the soldiers in the Volga-Urals Military District who say they are religious believers now identify as Muslims, compared to only 40 percent in that category who say they are Russian Orthodox and another 10 percent who declare they are Catholics or Protestants, according to a poll conducted by that military district.
These figures, gathered by the military itself as it launches a chaplaincy corps, are certain to be controversial. On the one hand, they highlight the impact of demographic change on the composition of the military – an ever-increasing fraction of the country’s 18 year olds is drawn from historically Muslim nationalities.
And on the other, they call into question the self-confident assertions of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin that ethnic Russians are inherently Orthodox and that they are just as likely if not more likely to have retained or recovered their religious faith than members of historically non-Orthodox nationalities.
Yesterday, Interfax reported that a source on the staff of the Volga-Urals Military District said that this was the first time that the number of Muslim believers exceeded the number of Orthodox faithful “at the level of a military district” as compared to individual units where that has happened before (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=34116).
The source, who was not further identified by the Russian news agency, added that despite this dev elopement, there had not been any “conflicts on a religious basis among believing soldiers” of the military district or cases of “a refusal to take the military oath or fulfill military duties on the basis of religious convictions.”
These figures directly contradict those offered by the defense ministry and used by the Orthodox Church for planning its chaplaincy corps. Deputy Minister Nikolay Pankov said that “about 80 percent” of all believers in uniform are Orthodox, while only 13 percent are Muslim. And not surprisingly, Interfax spoke with two experts who sought to play down the new data.
Yevgeny Vysotsky, the former chief of the defense ministry’s Cadres Administration, said that the new figures may reflect a breakdown in the principle of “extraterritoriality” in the assignment of soldiers, a reference to the program under which the army typically assigns troops far from their homes.
When he headed the cadres administration, Vysotsky continued, there were cases when in some units, “particularly in the Kuriles and in Kamchatka,” the number of Muslim soldiers exceeded the number of Russian Orthodox, although he almost certainly was referring to “ethnic” Muslims and “ethnic” Orthodox than to declared believers.
And Vysotsky added that he and his offers “attempted to regulate the relationship of nationalities in this or that military garrison or district,” an acknowledgement that Russian commanders have rarely been willing to admit and one that underscores what is from Moscow’s point of view an increasingly difficult problem.
Interfax also spoke with retired general Makhmut Gareyev, who now serves as the president of the Moscow Academy of Military Sciences. He said that no one should attach great importance to the findings being reported in the Volga-Urals Military District not because they are untrue but because they are irrelevant to the military’s mission.
What if there are more Muslim believers than Orthodox faithful, he asked rhetorically. That is not significant in and of itself. “The main thing,” Gareyev said, “is that the believers fulfill their military duty in worthy manner. And one wants to hope that the introduction of chaplains in the army and fleet will assist in this.”
The introduction of such a chaplaincy corps is now set to take off. This week, the defense ministry finally confirmed the statute governing chaplains for the approximately 70 percent of all soldiers and officers who, according to the ministry and the Moscow Patriarchate, now say they are believers (www.newsru.com/religy/10feb2010/armpriest.html).
Because Russian Orthodoxy has a priesthood -- that is, a class of people who perform special sacral functions --while Islam does not and because many in Moscow see Orthodoxy as an important source of support for the Russian state, the Moscow Patriarchate has successfully taken the lead in pushing for the introduction of chaplains.
The new figures from the Volga-Urals Military District, however, may lead some to question the claims of the Orthodox hierarchy and others to argue that the Russian military, which has never been that hospitable to Muslims, should become more tolerant and allow imams and mullahs greater access to those in uniform.