A. Verkhovsky. Public Interactions between Orthodox Christian and Moslem Organizations at the Federal Level

Настоящий материал (информация) произведен и (или) распространен иностранным агентом РОО Центр «Сова» либо касается деятельности иностранного агента РОО Центр «Сова».

We publish on our web-site the shortened version of paper presented on the seminar "Islam and Orthodoxy: Confrontation, Cohabitation, and Comparison" in Vienna, 12-13 March 2007.

Interactions between Orthodox Christians and Moslems in Russia today can be viewed from a number of perspectives. I believe that the most important of them are those which are intermediated by the government. But in this report, I will focus exclusively on interactions among key religious organizations at the federal level.

We should begin with the Russian Orthodox Church, obviously dominant in Russia's religious life. Different groups in the Church hold diverse perspectives on their interactions with Islam, and with specific Islamic organizations and leaders, but in this decade we can observe a certain convergence of positions inside the Orthodox community, which appears to be part of its internal consolidation process, with its turning point being the Bishops' Council 2000, which formally adopted Metropolitan Cyril's (Gundyaev) active ideological position.

Interestingly enough, the 2000 Bishops' Council, while it approved a specific statement on relations with other faiths, failed to adopt any decision whatsoever regarding its attitude to Islam. The issue is not addressed in the Fundamental Social Concepts of the Russian Orthodox Church either. Relevant official statements made by the ROC hierarchs have for many years focused on three recurrent themes. Firstly, "good neighbor' relations should be maintained in and outside the country. Secondly, proselytism is unacceptable, i.e. it is not allowed to convert any members of ethnic groups historically associated to other religions. Thirdly, Islam should not be linked to extremism, and the mere phrase Islamic extremism must be outlawed - Orthodox hierarchs support the widespread belief that "terrorists do not have a religion."

Ethno-Religious Conflicts

The declared unacceptability of proselytism in particular raises some issues.

The construction of mosques in regions where the Moslem population has not been reported as big is effectively described as a form of such proselytism, or Islamic expansion. Conflicts caused by such developments are numerous, but there is no point in trying to make sense of all their complicated circumstances in this paper. The construction of new mosques seriously mars ROC-Moslem relations.

There used to be problems with the construction of Orthodox churches in traditionally "Moslem" regions, such as Tatarstan, but such cases are now rare, and none have been revealed by our monitoring since 2003. Wherever ethnic Russians form an important part of the local community the authorities make sure to avoid tensions with ROC - so they rarely hinder, and often facilitate the construction of new Orthodox churches. On the other hand, there are no predominantly "ethnic Moslem" regions in Russia where ethnic Russians migrate on a large scale.

There has been an illustrative case with attempts of constructing a mosque in Sergyev Posad, in close proximity to ROC's spiritual center, Holy Trinity - St. Sergius Laura. It caused a wave of protests in 2003 - some people then said that building a mosque in such a location could only be balanced by building an Orthodox church in Mecca. This rhetoric does not only emphasize the symbolic nature of the conflict, but also reveals some excessively "global" thinking - some people appear to imagine all Moslems in the world as a single-minded structure targeted by the proposed "exchange" and seem to believe that imposing restrictions on the freedom of conscience in their own country can be justified by the lack of such freedom in any other country.

On the other hand, Moslems who insisted on building a mosque in Sergyev Posad appeared to be less concerned about meeting the needs of the local community than they were about winning a symbolic victory. In fact, in the summer of 2005 the local Imam was about to close the prayer house opened instead of a mosque and sell the building because the Moslem community was too small.

But proselytism is not only about Orthodox churches or Islamic mosques. In the Orthodox tradition, converting people of other faiths is called missionary work and cannot be banned by the Patriarchy. In a similar way, no one can ban the Islamic dawah.

Collecting reliable statistics about ethno-religious diffusion have not been possible - in many cases, it is driven by mixed marriages. These conversions however have not been raised as an issue between religious organizations or their leaders. For example, one might think that in Tatarstan, numerous conversions of ethnic Tatars to Orthodox Christianity would cause tensions among religious leaders, but so far, they have not. Certainly, there have also been cases of "ethnic Orthodox Christians" adopting Islam.

Conflicts arise only where converts actively emphasize the unusual combination of their ethnic and religious identities - incidentally, such cases are much more common among the "ethnic Orthodox" adopting Islam than otherwise.

Inter-ethnic or Inter-religious Relations?

Conversion to other faiths is less frequent than religious intolerance. In this regard, there is a marked asymmetry in Orthodox-Moslem relations. Islamo-phobia in Russia has been discussed on many occasions. Without going into details of sociological findings, we note that up to 50% of Russians surveyed share a suspicious and overly negative attitude to Islam as religion and culture; in general, "conflict of civilizations" is a popular concept in Russia. However, xenophobia against certain individuals based on their Islamic faith is much more common than that based on Orthodox faith, but it is still less frequent than ethnic xenophobia.

However, religious intolerance cannot always be separated from ethnic intolerance, because the Russian society, as widely recognized, tends to confuse religious and ethnic identity. From time to time, the religious leaders' ethnocentric rhetoric becomes explicitly aggressive. Moreover, in a wide range of activist groups - Tatar Moslems, Russian Orthodox and others - ethic and religious components are totally inseparable.

However, as it was rightly observed by James Warhola, the relations between Orthodox and Moslem believers in Russia are asymmetrical in this regard. Most Orthodox believers in Russia are ethnic Russians, and their Orthodox identity is strongly associated with their ethnic and cultural identity. Moslem believers, in contrast, are characterized by a diversity of ethnic identities. They also tend to confuse ethnic and religious identities (particularly the Volga Tatars, a group which has been the dominant Moslem ethnos in their region for a long time). Nevertheless, the notion of Moslem unity is broader than that of ethnic unity.

I would contend the statement that Islam, de-facto, serves as a supra-ethnic unifying factor. Indeed, we have not observed any massive manifestations of multi-ethnic Islamic solidarity in Russia. But we can clearly observe very controversial trends among the Moslem religious elites. Throughout the 90-ies, traditional Moslem leaders were divided by their ethnicity and location, whereas today, associations are driven by purely pragmatic considerations. Some Moslem leaders insist that Ummah is a supra-ethnic unity, but these leaders are not part of the mainstream. The ranks of such activists have been steadily growing, but they have not brought more unity to the Russian Ummah.

On the other hand, the process of ethnic differentiation in the Moslem community has exhausted itself. The peak of minorities ethno-nationalism, including historically Islamic minorities, was left behind in early 90-ies, whereas now, in the context of strengthening "the Vertical of Power" and the rise of the Russian majority ethno-nationalism, even radical ethnic and religious leaders speaking on behalf of their ethnic groups tend to assume a defensive stance along the lines of protecting minority rights. Various solidarity-driven mechanisms are used - from classic human rights defense (not so popular yet) through advocacy for collective rights (increasingly popular) to Islamic solidarity. This latter mechanism is seen more and more as particularly realistic as the Moslem identity grows stronger (in the context of the overall rise of religious identity in the country).

Approaches to the Issue of Identity and Minority Status

Two major interrelated issues - the place of religion in society and relationship with the government - are in the center of interactions between Orthodox and Moslem religious organizations. Since the early 2000, there has been an overall agreement among leaders of major religious organizations in Russia concerning joint advocacy for their interests, which is being done fairly effectively by the Inter-religious Council of Russia bringing together seven organizations which represent the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism (these four religions are semi-officially considered "traditional religions" in Russia).

If ROC leaders had continued to treat all the four "traditional religions" as equals (as they did in late 90-ies), the relationships between ROC and its Moslem partners in the Inter-religious Council (IRC) would have been almost ideal, but since the first years of the new decade, ROC's official rhetoric has increasingly claimed "the Church of majority" status based on the premise that "Russia is a predominantly Orthodox country with some national and religious minorities." Whereas IRC's Judaic and Buddhist members were prepared to accept ROC's claim, because they had never dreamed of effective equality, Moslem leaders could challenge it by arguing that they represented 20 millions of Russian nationals.

Leaders of the Coordination Center for North Caucasus Moslems rarely get involved in arguments on all-Russian issues or support the IRC majority opinion. While representing the most Islamic regions in the country, they are more focused on advocacy for regional interests, do not claim a contribution to the overall "Russian identity," and in this particular aspect they are hardly different from the leaders of Russian Buddhists.

Similarly, most other Moslem leaders seek to advocate mainly for their ethno-religious groups, particularly at the regional level. But in general, the Council of Muftis (CM) and the Central Moslem Spiritual Authority (CMSA) pursue a well-defined (even though sometimes inconsistent) policy with regard to ROC and its role in the country. This policy goes clearly beyond advocacy for minority interests. The policies pursued by CMSA and CM are different in principle, so we will discuss them separately.

The Central Moslem Spiritual Authority

CMSA led by mufti Tajuddin almost always sides with ROC.

This position is largely due to their realistic understanding, dating back to Soviet times, of their place in the Russian society. Of no less importance are the ideas held by the CMSA leader and his associates about the inherent proximity between Orthodoxy and Islam as Abrahamic religions and as Russia's two major religions. Many in CMSA see themselves as a specific Moslem component of Russia's rebirth as a traditionally Orthodox country. This paradoxical idea appears to be a manifestation of the neo-Eurasianism shared by CMSA - it is not accidental that this part of the Moslem community has always been involved and continues to be involved in Alexander Dugin's political and ideological projects.

Neo-Eurasianists' confused and contradictory writings produce an impression that the Orthodox Russia is more than just a part of "the Christian civilization," as it is the oriental (i.e. Asian) nature, including a special role of Islam, make Russia stand out as one of the opposing "poles" in contemporary world.

Outside the neo-Eurasianism, there is not a single theory whereby the Russian Orthodoxy and Islam share anything except their patriotic sensitivities and common enemies - Western liberalism and secularity. A common enemy is an important unifying factor; however, many people would also expect allies to share some sort of positive platform. Civil patriotism is not convincing in this context, because it does not distinguish Orthodox and Moslem believers from secularists or even from atheists or followers of most new faiths. It is for this reason that neo-Eurasianism is so attractive to many.

But not to all. ROC leaders insist on having nothing to do with the "Eurasian" concepts and limit themselves to more general statements describing Russia as "eastern as well as western country," refusing however to interpret this dual nature as Moslem as well as Orthodox. Metropolitan Kyrill (Gundyaev) has invoked a "dual nature of Orthodoxy as Christianity of the East." Russia is perceived by the Church leaders as "ethnic Russian and Orthodox civilization" (sic! - a self-contained civilization), whereas the Russian Islam is its junior ally "responsible" for dealing with major loyal minorities in the country.

So the neo-Eurasianism underlies very asymmetric sentiments in ROC and CMSA. However, this partnership, asymmetric in all respects, appears to suit both sides.

The Council of Muftis Policy

As to the Russian Council of Muftis (CM), we need to make a caveat that the Council is not a homogeneous or disciplined group of leaders, so none of their statements, even those made by CM co-chairs, can be considered as a consolidated position. Nevertheless, CM members' statements suggest a policy totally different from that of CMSA.

Neo-Eurasianism is unpopular with CM. Whereas CMSA proceeds from the idea that Orthodoxy and Islam are the two pillars of Russia merging together in a Eurasian perspective, CM sees these two pillars as separate, with the Russian Islam unavoidably opposing the Russian Orthodoxy which claims priority.

All organizations - members of the Inter-religious Council of Russia - have supported ROC's cherished initiative of introducing the Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture (FOC) curriculum in Russian schools. Only the Council of Muftis chairman Ravil Gainutdin opposed the idea. He is not happy either with a compromise solution proposed earlier by the Church leadership, whereby FOC would be taught in "Orthodox regions," while "Moslem regions" would introduce a similar Moslem curriculum (which has been done de-facto in four "Moslem regions"), because, this perspective reduces Islam to a regional phenomenon similar to the Russian Buddhism - whereas Ravil Gainutdin looks forward to institutionalizing Russia's bi-religious nature in the future by introducing a position of vice president to be held by a Moslem.

The incremental, but noticeable process of desecularization serves "the Church of the majority" more than others, especially in a country with authoritarian government. (Admittedly, Islam is served by the authoritarian rule in "Moslem regions"). According to CM, Russian Moslems must, in the observable future, advocate for their equality with ROC across a broad range of issues. It would be hardly possible to advocate for equal status of both religions, because it is unacceptable for political elites and for general public; advocacy is more likely to be effective if it focuses on the principles of secularity and human rights.

This was the strategy employed by CM on many occasions to challenge ROC's position, for example, concerning the institution of military priests. Certain CM leaders have particularly referred to the principle of secularity in their protests against Christian symbols on the Russian national coat of arms. Challenging his colleagues' views, Ravil Gainutdin then also referred to secular arguments: Moslems in a secular state must respect symbols adopted through a democratic process, whereas any attempts at revision "may lead to undesirable tension."

However, appeals to a secular approach do not mean that CM members are, indeed, advocates of secularism. CM is a religious organization using secular arguments in their efforts to protect a minority. In many other instances, CM jointly with other religious organizations make anti-secular statements, especially with regard to cultural manifestations. We can also refer to their fairly aggressive reaction to the "Danish cartoons."


The years 2005 and 2006 were a period of escalated tensions in Orthodox-Moslem relations. Some issues in question have been described above, and it is hardly possible to cover all of them. In all cases it was obvious that nearly all participants of these debates were speaking in terms of "conflict of civilizations." The growing popularity of this discourse appears to aggravate Islamo-phobia and multiply Orthodox-Moslem conflicts.

In religious circles Orthodox and Islamic "civilizations" are often perceived as antagonists. But there is a concurrent point of view clearly expressed by Arch-priest Vsevolod Chaplin: he said that he was more concerned about Western secularists' attacks against both Christianity and Islam. This statement is consistent with ROCs numerous appeals to all religiously-defined "civilizations" to oppose the ideological expansion of the liberal and secular western civilization.

Moslem leaders are prepared to support this idea, but they do it in different ways at the international level and inside Russia. At the international level, "secular enemies" are very strong, so the differences in foreign policy assessments are not so important. In contrast, Russian domestic secularism is on the decline, while political differences are greater.

These conflicting trends make it difficult to forecast further development of relations between Orthodox and Moslem leaders. It will depend, among other things, on the personality factor, and on the future policy of the Russian government.