Staunton, September 17 – The Moscow Patriarchate official responsible for relations with the Russian armed forces and security agencies and hence someone whose work brings him into contact with the leading edge of demographic trends says that if birthrates among ethnic Russian remain low, Russia could at some point in the future become a Muslim country.
And possibly because of that insight, Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov is urging a more tolerant approach to Muslims now, welcoming them to pray in Orthodox churches as the imam of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque has suggested and translating the Gospels into the Turkic languages many of Russia’s Muslims speak (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=37383).
Many Russian Orthodox priests and ordinary Russians have reacted with horror to Imam Ildar Alyautdinov’s suggestion that because Moscow’s more than two million Muslims have only five mosques and currently face opposition to the construction of any new ones, the faithful should go to Orthodox churches in order to pray.
Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate whose writings have often angered Muslims, has taken the lead in arguing that such visits by Muslims to Orthodox churches would constitute a threat not only to the church but to Russia (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=37382).
But Archpriest Smirnov takes a very different position. Visits by Muslims to Orthodox churches, he says, “are not threats.” Indeed, “if you please, we will be very glad. The doors of the churches are open – come and pray quietly. Perhaps some of them will become interested in Christianity.”
Moreover, Smirnov continues, “we are ready to hand out Gospels in the Turkic languages in order that they will better understand the faith of that country in which they find themselves.” And he stressed that the two faiths should get alone: “Muslims respect Jesus Christ as the prophet Isa,” the Orthodox hierarch says and say that they often approach him in the church.”
That does not mean that such visits do not sometimes entail problems, he continues. Once in a church where Smirnov himself served, a Muslim worker desecrated the face of the Savior on a fresco. “But this was because of illiteracy. Had he known that this was the prophet Isa, he would not have done this for this would be a desecration of the Koran.”
Smirnov’s position is certainly not shared by all the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, but it appears to reflect the views of some of the more thoughtful ones who have as he has expressed concern that anti-Islamic statements and actions when the number of Muslims in Russia is growing can only lead to disaster.
On the one hand, such statements and actions, which play well to those Russians who share the xenophobic attitudes of the extreme nationalists or who simply feel overwhelmed by the change in the ethnic and religious composition of the population of their neighborhoods, will only lead to more clashes.
And on the other, Smirnov and the Orthodox hierarchs who share his view almost certainly recognize that if indeed current demographic trends continue and Russia becomes a Muslim-majority country, the Muslims will remember how they were treated by others before they achieved that status. Thus the Orthodox have a vested interest in treating Islam well.
Because of his specific responsibilities in dealing with the Russian military, Smirnov perhaps more than any other senior churchman has seen the impact of demography on Russian life. An ever larger fraction of draftees are from the growing Muslim nations within the Russian Federation, something that has been the subject of intense discussion in the military.
What makes Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov’s words so important is that he is viewed by many in the church and in the Russian leadership as one of the chief advocates of a robust Russian national patriotism. Some Russians may change their mind about him after these remarks, but others perhaps will be influenced in a positive way.