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NEWS FEATURE: Efforts to Evangelize Russian Military Face Tough Times

c. 2003 Religion News Service MOZDOK, Russia _ In this garrison town located just 10 miles from the border with Chechnya, Pastor Vsevolod Don once walked the streets poking his head in basement windows looking for frightened, hiding deserters from the ragtag Russian army. The Presbyterian minister, a front-line member of the evangelical Russian Christian […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

MOZDOK, Russia _ In this garrison town located just 10 miles from the border with Chechnya, Pastor Vsevolod Don once walked the streets poking his head in basement windows looking for frightened, hiding deserters from the ragtag Russian army.

The Presbyterian minister, a front-line member of the evangelical Russian Christian Military Union, would coax the young recruits out of the basements, take them in, feed them, give them basic medical care and turn them over to the non-government Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. In between all that, Don would talk about Jesus.

“We’d have services and after that we’d have one-on-one conversations with them,” said Don, lowering his voice into a soothing tone. “We’d ask them: Why is there war? It is the work of Satan. We’d tell them, `You need to repent. You need to come to God.”’

That was back in 1995, at the height of Russia’s first botched and bloody attempt to subdue Chechnya’s independence bid. The whole region was in chaos as the former superpower’s army struggled, and ultimately failed, to quell the rebellion in Chechnya, an area the size of Connecticut.

That war, and another that broke out in 1999, represented opportunity for Don, a dapper former Soviet Navy officer, and a 12-person youth group from the town’s Emmanuel Presbyterian Church specially trained to evangelize soldiers.

Nowadays, with Chechnya largely subdued by an 80,000-man force and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church enjoying an official and ever-tighter relationship with the Defense Ministry, the window of opportunity for those Protestants keen on evangelizing Russia’s 1.1 million-strong military has narrowed to a slit.

“They say that (Russian) Protestants are American servants. They say that the Americans have won everything else and the last thing left is a religious victory,” bitterly commented Oleg Askalyonok, a Baptist and retired Air Force captain who now heads the Moscow-based Russian Christian Military Union.

Don concurred: “If you are an Orthodox believer, that’s all right. But if you are a Baptist or something else, you are not going to get promoted. They will find some reason to hold you back. That’s why any believer with a rank is not going to reveal himself.”

The Union, which has 68 branches across Russia, rarely gets access to military bases, and then only through an informal agreement with local commanders. In a region southwest of Moscow, for example, Askalyonok said the Union has been lobbying discreetly for months to get permission for a Protestant group of some 40 Air Force officers and their wives to hold worship services on the base.

“Everything we do is unofficial,” said Askalyonok, most of whose 20-year stint in the military was as a Communist Youth League leader charged with promoting atheism, among other things.

Of all the Russian institutions inherited from the Soviet Union after the 1991 breakup, the military is one of the least reformed. The military’s Soviet-era mentality combined with a deep distrust of those promoting reform and democracy mean that the Union has not appealed to human rights advocates or Russian courts to exercise the legal right of any soldier to meet regularly with a cleric in their faith, Askalyonok said.

“They hate human rights workers, simply hate them. So, if I were to go for that kind of help, I would lose what we have achieved so far,” he said, noting that human rights groups have been the military’s bane in documenting abuses in Chechnya.

The issue of how to accommodate the needs of religious minorities in the armed forces overall appears to be unresolved, if it is even an issue at all. Repeated telephone and faxed requests for information and comment over a three-week period to the Ministry of Defense in Moscow were never refused, nor were they answered.

Protestants, by far the fastest growing of Russia’s religious minorities, still make up perhaps only 1 percent of the country’s 144 million population. Roman Catholics are a fraction of that number, as are Jews. Clerics representing the country’s estimated 20 million Muslims are gradually winning the right to minister to soldiers through a series of ad hoc agreements, most recently in May with infantry forces.

The 80 million-member Russian Orthodox Church, an integral part of the Russian Imperial forces for centuries leading up to the 1917 Communist Revolution, has carved out for itself a somewhat ambiguous role in the post- Soviet military. While the church and various military branches have concluded an array of “agreements” and “understandings” on how they can work together, so far many of the accomplishments are seemingly cosmetic _ like naming Saint Barbara the patron of the nuclear missile forces, blessing new ships and planes or sprinkling holy water on recruits bound for Chechnya.

Lacking a formal chaplaincy, the church relies on local parish priests to serve nearby installations. According to Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for Relations with Military Forces, about 300 priests currently perform such work. The military needs 10 times that, he said, adding that he has attended three NATO conferences on the issue and estimates a full-blown chaplaincy program won’t emerge for another five or 10 years when trained priests and financing are in place.

Askalyonok, of the Union, identifies Smirnov and his clout in the Defense Ministry as one of the Protestants’ biggest obstacles to evangelizing the troops. Smirnov readily agrees.

“Evangelists work in our country as though they were in Chad or Cameroon, as though there were no Christianity here at all. As a result, they are destructive,” Smirnov said during a recent interview in his well-appointed rectory. “Most soldiers are baptized (Orthodox) in childhood. When a Protestant comes along he has a whole different way of thinking. You don’t get any kind of spiritual connection. … If a soldier becomes a Protestant, he’ll start rejecting icons, rejecting the Mother of God.”


For the time being, without any political allies or lobby in the Defense Ministry, the Union’s members are left to stage small, grass-roots operations.

Capt. Renat Saifullin, a charismatic Protestant, pilots an Ilyushin-76 cargo jet from an air base just outside the ancient northern Russian city of Pskov. He wears a small, silver cross on his left lapel and sees himself as a de facto chaplain at the 1,000-person air base. About nine months ago, a commander gave him access to the large loudspeaker near the center of the base. Using money from his monthly $240 salary, Saifullin said he broadcasts mostly Christian music from noon to 8 p.m. daily. The highly unusual arrangement grew out of a good rapport with his nonbelieving commander, he said.

“He knows that I am disciplined and I am responsible. He knows that if we have to fly some long mission, there won’t be any drinking, any carousing or wildness. There won’t be any problems,” said Saifullin during a recent visit to the Union’s Moscow offices. “Our God is a God of order. A believer is predictable, to put it plainly.”