Friday, August 20, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Religious Leaders Split on Whether Moscow is an Ethnic Russian City

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 20 – The Moscow city government’s plan to come up with a ‘Code of the Muscovite’ to instruct immigrants how to behave as well as Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s support for Muslim celebrations in the Russian capital in the coming months have sparked debates over whether Moscow is or will remain a Russian city in the ethnic sense.
As it often does during controversies of this kind, the news agency has surveyed religious leaders of various confessions about whether they see Moscow as an “ethnically Russian” city now and in the future and consequently whether they approve of the city’s latest moves regarding immigrants and religion (
The five Russian Orthodox figures generally supported the idea that Moscow is an ethnically Russian city, but they varied in their assessments of how Russians living there should deal with Muslims in order to protect this “Russianness” in the future. The two Muslim religious took a very different position.
Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s press service, said that “undoubtedly, Moscow is an ethnically Russian city. But representatives of various religious minorities, including Muslims, live in it as well.” And their needs cannot be ignored by the majority.
Vigilyansky said that he supported the installation of loudspeakers outside of Moscow’s four mosques to handle the overflow crowds. Otherwise, he said, the city would face more demands for the construction of new mosques. The archpriest added that he would prefer to hear Muslim prayers occasionally than to see new mosques on a permanent basis.
Father Valery Bulannikov, the pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox church in Otradnoye, said he did not oppose broadcasting Muslim prayers within the confines of the mosques but not more generally. After all, “we do not live in Saudi Arabia.” As for the ethnicity of the city, he said that unfortunately Moscow is being converted into a multi-cultural and faceless megalopolis.”
Archpriest Tikhon, who teaches at the Moscow Theological Academy, said broadcasting Islamic prayers near mosques is not a problem, “but broadcasting [them] throughout the city and forcing people to listen to an alien religious tradition, of course, is not a good idea.” The rights of minorities must be respected, but so too must the rights of the majority.
Archmonk Makarii, a leading Orthodox missionary and one of the authors of a patriarchal volume on human rights, said he has no doubts that “Moscow is an ethnic Russian city.” Obviously, the rights of minorities need to be respected, but compromises over the many disputes of this kind require minorities to adapt too.
And Sergey Rogunov, who teaches at the Patriarchal Center for Spiritual Development of Children and Youth, says that allowing Muslims to broadcast their prayers at certain times may offend some Russians but that measure will also lead many people who call themselves Orthodox to think more deeply about what their own religion entails.
As far as any “Muscovite Code” is concerned, Rogunov suggested that new arrivals “must observe the traditions which have arisen in Moscow as an ethnic Russian city” and show respect to them. But at the same time, Russians need to display tolerance of others in order to retain their own spirituality.
Ismail Berdiyev, head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol Kray, said he was against dividing citizens of the Russian Federation on ethnic lines. “If someone in Russia begins to say, ‘This is Russia and this is another nationality,’ he will be incorrect. [Moreover,] to do so is impermissible.
From that it follows, he said, that “one must not divide cities on a national basis, since all kinds of people live there.” Those who do so, he added, are doing so to provoke “a time of troubles among people.” If people say that “this is a city for Russians and this is for non-Russians, then … wars will begin.”
Meanwhile, Akhmed-khadzhi Makhmetov, deputy mufti for social questions of the Volga Region MSD, said it was absolutely necessary to broadcast prayers outside of the mosques during major Muslim holidays like Kurban-bayram and Uraza-bayram, because so many Muslims attend services then.
In the Russian capital at present, he pointed out, there are a total of four mosques for a Muslim population of 1.5 to 2 million Muslims. There simply is no way to accommodate all of them inside. Last year, for example, about 50,000 Muslims came to one of the mosques alone and filled the streets from the mosque to the metro station.
Makhmetov added that “it is wrong to say in a multi-national and poly-confessional country that Moscow is a Russian city. The role of Muslims in the history of Russia is very great, and therefore it is complicated to speak about some kind of ‘Russian city’ or about ‘Holy Rus.’” Even place names show that “we built this state together and we fought together.”
Finally, asked Leonid Syukyanen, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and a leading expert on Islam, for his comments. He said that “of course, Moscow already cannot be considered as a purely Orthodox city” and that all sides needed to show tolerance.
That isn’t always easy, he continued. Plans for a mosque in New York near the site where the World Trade Center stood before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have sparked serious debates among Americans. “But Russia is a country with much deeper rooted traditions of Orthodox-Muslim dialogue.”

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