Thursday, November 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Major Faiths in Russia Suffer from ‘Cadres Hunger’

Paul Goble

Kuressaare, November 20 – The Christian, Jewish and Islamic communities of the Russian Federation are suffering from what observers there call “a severe cadres hunger” because young people are showing relatively little interest in becoming religious leaders -- even after they receive religious educations.
The Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy has been reluctant to admit this problem, ”Izvestiya” commentator Boris Klin says, but some of its members will acknowledge it when speaking on background, although even then, they blame it on demographic problems or the end of draft deferments for priests (
Most provincial seminaries, he reports, now accept just about everyone who applies, and “even those who fail examinations at the Moscow Spiritual Seminary [in Moscow] are retained,” a pattern that suggests the Church will not be able to staff the country’s churches and one that suggests the country is less religious than the Patriarchate claims.
The Jews are also suffering similar problems but their leaders have been more open about it. Andrei Glotser, an official of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, said that “we do everything we can in order that leaders prepared by us from among the young do not leave their communities,” including raising salaries to prevent them from pursuing other careers.
But the Muslims appear to have the biggest problem in this regard, Klin continues. Even when young people receive Islamic training at Muslim universities subsidized by the state, upon graduation many of t hem refuse to take poorly-paid positions as rural mullahs, preferring instead to work “outside Islam for six to eight thousand dollars.”
In order to prevent young Muslims from going abroad to study and possibly returning with radical ideas, the government’s Fund for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education is “financing [domestic] Muslim universities, paying stipends, and teaching Koranic science” to what Moscow hopes will be the next generation of Muslim leaders.
Students in Muslim schools learn not only Arabic and theology but English and economics, and they are thus well prepared to work in highly remunerative jobs in the Arab world, according to Maksud Sadikov, the rector of the North Caucasus University Center of Islamic Education and Science.
The graduates are thus less interested in working in poorly paid positions in mosques, which lack a sufficient number of parishioners to provide for them. And Klin concludes that this means the Russian authorities will soon have to pay mullahs and not just for their training if Moscow does not want to see a further influx of missionaries from abroad.
There is one additional reason that many graduates of Muslim universities in Russia are choosing not to work in mosques: they are often the victims of violent attacks by Islamist radicals. Nowhere has this problem been greater recently than in Daghestan where mullahs and imams who are part of the local Islamic establishment are being killed almost every week.
(On the rising tide of such attacks there, see among other reports and commentaries:,, For examples of Islamist calls to attack mullahs, see the commentaries on
This situation makes especially timely the publication this week of a detailed sociological study of imams in the Urals region. Prepared by Aleksei Starostin of Urals State University, it summarizes information about various aspects of the biographies of roughly 20 percent of the imams there (
According to Starostin’s report, the average age of mullahs there is 55, with a third of the total already pensioners. Sixty-one percent come from rural areas, while 19 percent come from small towns. By nationality, 68 percent of the imams are Tatars, five percent are of Central Asian nationalities, and three percent are members of North Caucasus groups.
Significantly, nearly one in five – 17 percent – of the mullahs are continuing a family tradition of service to Islam as mullahs or imams, with more than a third of this sample telling Starostin that they became committed Muslims as a result of the influences of their parents and other relatives.
Only four percent of the mullahs received training at the Bukhara medressah in Soviet times. One in five graduated from the Russian Islamic University in Ufa. And 15 percent studied in Islamic schools in Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but 46 percent of those never studied in any medressah or Islamic university.
Most – 66 percent – had earlier secular careers, are married (85 percent) and have children, with one in four of the mullahs having more than three children, the study found. Most live quietly: 67 percent had never spoken to the media, 72 percent aren’t paid, and 28 percent do not take part in public meetings.
But there is an activist minority, which frequently takes part in public celebrations (42 percent) and speaks to the media (21 percent). Moreover one in 11 edits a newspaper, an Internet site, or a television program, and three percent have written and published theological and historical books.
The older generation of mullahs is gradually being replaced by younger imams who are better educated, often abroad, and are actively involved in organizing the Muslim communities in the region. In contrast to those who grew up in Soviet times, Starostin reports, the new mullahs always knew they wanted to work in that capacity and trained accordingly.

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