Staunton, September 22 – Even as it opposes the construction of a single new mosque in the Russian capital, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is planning to open hundreds of new churches there, seeking ownership over places it never owned before, and, most ominously, expanding missionary work among Muslim immigrant workers.
Along with many Moscow residents and officials, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have opposed the construction of a new mosque in Tekstilshchiki, even though it would be only the fifth mosque in the city and mean that there would be one place for prayer for every 500,000 “ethnic Muslims,” a term referring to members of historically Islamic peoples.
That case has sparked intense discussion in the media with some Orthodox figures like Roman Silantyev insisting that the Russian capital and indeed the Russian Federation at large have too many mosques already, while Muslim leader point to the enormous crowds of the faithful who have to pray in the streets because there is no room in the few existing mosques.
But even as that debate has intensified, the Moscow Patriarchate is moving in three directions likely to further exacerbate inter-religious tensions not only in the Russian capital but in the Russian Federation as a whole, tensions that almost certainly will acquire an ethnic dimension, lead to more violence in the cities, and greater instability in the North Caucasus.
First, the Patriarchate, with the support of some officials, is pushing for the hundreds of new churches there to bring their number “up to ‘the pre-revolutionary level.’” At present, the hierarchs say, there is only one church in Moscow for every 40,000 “ethnic Orthodox” (www.mk.ru/social/article/2010/09/20/530794-doroga-k-hramu-shagovoy-dostupnosti.html).
Patriarch Kirill himself has told Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov that “the normalization of the situation” in the Russian capital requires building “on the order of 600 new churches,” many far larger than existing religious sites. So far, however, the city administration has given approval for building only 200, “Moskovsky komsomolets” reports.
The city’s reluctance to agree to all of Kirill’s requests reflects less an unwillingness to help the Church than the shortage of available land and legal restrictions against the seizure of property by a secular state in order to build religious facilities, the paper continues. But it also undoubtedly reflects concerns about Muslim reaction to such a building program.
To get around that, the Russian Orthodox Church has come up with plans to construct 100 to 150 additional churches that can be rapidly assembled or disassembled in parks and squares, a project that if it is carried out will not only increase the total number of Orthodox Churches there by 350 but put them where they would be especially visible.
Second, with the support of the central powers that be, the Russian Orthodox Church is helping to push through the Duma legislation that its authors say will restore to the Moscow Patriarchate property that was seized from it by the Soviet authorities. That measure has now passed first reading, but it is already raising some serious questions.
While no one challenges the notion that the Communist regime took property that the Church was using just as it seized facilities being used by other faiths, “Kommersant” pointed out today that the Moscow Patriarchate and its supporters are being somewhat disingenuous in their discussion of this issue (www.kommersant.ru/doc-y.aspx?DocsID=1508176).
That is because prior to 1917, there was a fundamental difference in the status of property used by the Russian Orthodox Church and that used by Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants and others. In Imperial times, the ROC did not own property: it used property owned by the state itself, while the other religions did have ownership of their facilities.
That does not mean that the Russian Orthodox Church should not regain the use of facilities that the Bolsheviks took, but it does mean that the law as currently drafted is problematic. Indeed, as the paper suggests, its provisions are entirely accurate for all the non-Orthodox faiths but not at all for the church intended as its primary beneficiary.
And third, there is a new push among some close to the Patriarchate for expanding Russian Orthodox missionary activity among immigrant workers in the Russian Federation, a group who come primarily from the traditionally Muslim countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
In a comment carried by Interfax today – which may be a trial balloon – Archpriest Dionisii Pozdnyaev of the Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church in Hong Kong called for the Moscow church to take up the task of “adapting” immigrants who have arrived in Russia (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=37477).
The religious should stop talking about “the problems of immigration” and the “advance of Islam” and start doing something about. Specifically, he said, the Church should promote the Russian language, instruction in Russian Orthodox culture, and a system of social adaptation to Russian realities.
Such a program, the priest said, by showing real love and concern” to the migrants on whom Russia, given its demographic difficulties, must rely, “would draw these people to Christ.”
Even though it is cast as a program promoting acculturation and assimilation, such efforts would not only look like missionary work but would represent the clearest violation yet of the informal compact among the leaders of Russia’s four “traditional” religions not to try to convert members of their faiths.
It is likely that Moscow Patriarchate would insist that immigrants do not fall under the restrictions imposed by that compact and that many of them are not Islamic believers but only “ethnic Muslims.” But that argument would satisfy few Muslims, especially since the Russian Orthodox Church has taken the lead in insisting that all ethnic Russians are truly Orthodox.