Vienna, March 5 – Interior ministry officials in Russia’s Sverdlovsk oblast says that its chief task is to preserve “a specific religious balance,” one in which individuals can practice their own religions without violating the rights of others to do the same or undermining the national security of the state.
Last week, interior ministry officials held a meeting there at which they argued that while “the problem of extremism in inter-confessional relations is not characteristic” of their region, “the role of law enforcement organs” in maintaining “balance” among them is “difficult to overstate” (www.mvd.ru/news/38473/).
Exactly how the MVD understands that task was suggested by Elena Gubina, a specialist of the center for countering extremism in the oblast interior ministry office. She said that “the main efforts” of law enforcement were “directed at the appearance and blocking of the activity of organizations officially prohibited in the Russian Federation.”
She gave two examples of this approach: the extradition of a Tajik citizen who was distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature in Sverdlovsk and the detention of a group of Falun Gong activists who in June 2009 attempted to distribute leaflets at the time of the Yekaterinburg summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries.
Participants in the meeting, including Muslim theologian Gali Akhmadiyev, Orthodox missionary Aleksandr Sandyrev, Mari traditional religion leader Sergey Nikitin, and the vice president of the oblast Union for Tolerance, “atheist” Mikhail Oshtrakh, engaged in “an active but respectful discussion.”
But if all agreed that “it is impermissible to force anyone to believe something [and] that each religion has its own religious foundation which must not be shifted a millimeter,” they disagreed on a variety of issues, some of which have a profound effect on the actions of law enforcement agencies.
One issue which sparked dispute was “the problem of definition: is it possible to use the term ‘sect’ if that word has no legal definition.” Some of the participants argued that it is “more correct” to “speak about the violation of human rights and the prevention of the activities of organizations which do so than to declare one or another culture destructive.”
Another issue on which the participants reportedly were unable to find any agreement concerned the introduction into schools of courses on the foundations of religious culture. The Muslim leader taking part said that a Muslim child might have its rights violated if an Orthodox majority decided to have this course focus on Christianity.
In conclusion, Nina Pelevina of the Sverdlovsk interior ministry office’s press service, quoted with approval the words of Elena Glavatskaya, a professor of archaeology, ethnology, and special historical disciplines of the Urals State University concerning relations among religions in that region and in Russia as a whole.
“In Sverdlovsk oblast,” she said, “the situation in the inter-confessional sector is perhaps more stable than elsewhere in Russia. The main thing is not to undermine this by incorrect and poorly thought through actions,” thus implying that any false steps in this area of law enforcement could prove explosive.
That danger was highlighted in a commentary by Mark Smirnov in the latest issue of “NG-Religii,” in which he argued that neither the leaders of Russia’s religious communities nor the secular authorities “were devoting sufficient attention” to the problem of religious extremism (religion.ng.ru/printed/237570).
According to Smirnov, “the problem of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in contemporary Russia is with each passing year acquiring an ever sharper character. The number of crimes committed on a religious basis, the basic motive of which is religious intolerance and the antagonism of representatives of some religious organization to others is growing.”
Moreover, he continued, “there exists a well organized extremist underground which is seeking by the use of force and terror to impose among Russian Muslims a radical Islamist ideology which is alien to them,” an effort that has been aided both by Russia’s enemies and by recent domestic developments.
The current “difficult economic situation, which is leading to unemployment, impoverishment and the lumpenization of a significant part of the population” is profoundly affecting young people and opening the way for them to be drawn into “marginal groups of nationalists and religious extremists.”
Unfortunately, he continues, neither the government nor religious leaders have been giving adequate attention to this combination of elements, a failure that Smirnov suggests is fraught which “great danger” not only among Muslims but among others, who may be drawn into “national-socialist” or “neo-pagan” directions.
Now, because things are so explosive, Smirnov continues, the leaders of religious organizations and the secular powers that be “must jointly do everything possible not to allow religious doctrines to be used by extremists and terrorists,” cooperating more closely than they have in the past.
The meeting in Sverdlovsk last week is an indication that Smirnov is speaking for more than himself in this regard.