Staunton, December 10 – Three out of four Russians identify themselves as followers of one or another faith, but only 58 percent of these say they believe in God, a pattern that one Moscow expert says indicates that “religion for many Russians has only symbolic importance” as a marker of identity.
But even more important, Marina Mcheldova pointed out at a Kazan conference this week on how federalism can prevent ethno-confessional conflicts, there are major differences among the major faiths of Russia in this regard, a finding that is certain to exacerbate discussion about the relative size of religious groups there (islamportal.ru/novosti/104/1305/).
On the basis of research that she and other scholars at the Center for Religion in Contemporary Society at the Moscow Institute of Sociology have conducted over the past two years, 84 percent of Russian citizens who identify themselves as Muslims say they believe in God, while only 72 percent of who identify as Russian Orthodox Christians do.
But because only 49 percent of all Russians surveyed identified themselves as followers of any religion – a finding undercutting claims by various leaders that Russia is again a religious country -- those findings will do little to end the argument about “ethnic Muslims” and “ethnic Orthodox,” those who declare a faith to manifest ethnicity rather than for any other purpose.
On the one hand, the difference between Muslims and Orthodox Christians in this regard may simply reflect the reality that in Russia today, declaring oneself a Muslim is in many places far less politically correct than saying one is an Orthodox Christian, thus reducing the number of those who declare themselves to be Muslims if they are not believers.
And on the other, as many Orthodox commentators have suggested, the relative simplicity of Islam as a religion compared to Orthodox Christianity may be involved. For most Muslims, the declaration that one is a follower of Islam is equivalent to a declaration of faith in God, while for at least some Orthodox in Russia, the same is not necessarily the case.
Meanwhile, an article by Dmitry Treshchanin and Pavel Pryanikov on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal provides another set of statistics on Russian religious life that also are certain to spark additional controversy: a comparison of the number of facilities by religion in Moscow and between Moscow and other major cities around the world (svpressa.ru/society/article/35231/).
The two summarize their findings in the following lapidary way: “There are 100 times as many churches per capita in Moscow than in Shanghai but six times fewer than the number per capita in New York. And there is a special deficit in Moscow of mosques,” given the number of Muslims there.
But as in all things, especially religious, the devil is in the details.
Patriarch Kirill insists that Moscow has far too few churches. According to him, the Russian capital needs at least 591 more of them in order to bring the ratio per capita up to the all-Russian average and make it possible for all Muscovites to have an Orthodox church within walking distance.
At the same time, Muslim leaders have argued that their faithful should have “no fewer than 100” additional mosques, given that they now have only six. Otherwise, they say, the Islamic faithful will either have to continue to pray “in the streets” or go into Orthodox churches for Muslim prayers.
Drawing on an official city government fact book, Treshchanin and Pryanikov say there are currently 840 religious institutions representing more than 40 different confessions in the Russian capital. Of these, 670 churches and 26 chapels belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, with another nine belonging to the Old Believers.
The Muslims have six mosques, according to the city, “plus an unknown number of ‘prayer houses.’ The Jews have 38 cultural centers and seven synagogues. The Buddhists have five “cult” centers, the Armenian Apostolic Church has two, the Catholics three, and the Lutherans three. Other Protestant groups have 37 prayer houses.
Using the findings of the VTsIOM polling agency, the two journalists make the assumption that 75 percent of the population across the country professes Orthodox, five percent Islam, and less than one percent any of the other faiths, figures that they acknowledge are problematic both overall and especially for Moscow.
But using them, they come up with the following figures that compare the number of religious facilities among the faiths and also the number of the faithful for each of them. In Moscow, they report, there are 751 Christian facilities or one for every 12,000 residents of the Russian capital.
For Muslims in that city, there are six, or one for every 97,000 of the faithful; for Jews, seven, or one for every 15000 followers of Judaism; and for Buddhists five centers, or one for every 20,000. Given that there is a greater proportion of Muslims and a smaller one of Buddhists in the Russian capital, these ratios probably understate the per capita situation.
But as Treshchanin and Pryanikov say, the problem is even more complicated than that. Only slightly more than half of all Russians regularly attend religious services. The overwhelming majority – 83 percent, according to VTsIOM -- do so either only on holidays or “from time to time.”