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NEWS STORY: Among Russia’s Religious, Indifference to War in Iraq

c. 2003 Religion News Service MOSCOW _ While tens of thousands of Christians to the west and Muslims to the south are taking to the streets against a war in Iraq, believers of both faiths in the former Soviet Union are largely silent on the issue, mostly out of indifference or fear. “They don’t speak […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

MOSCOW _ While tens of thousands of Christians to the west and Muslims to the south are taking to the streets against a war in Iraq, believers of both faiths in the former Soviet Union are largely silent on the issue, mostly out of indifference or fear.

“They don’t speak out against what the government says. They have too much experience with repression. It is in their genes,” said Heydar Djemal, a Muslim activist here, speaking of the estimated 60 million Muslims living along the southern tier of what was 11 years ago the officially atheist Soviet Union.

In the predominantly Muslim Central Asian nations, where leaders range from mild dictators to one deranged tyrant, the solitary protest to a United States-led attack on Iraq came Feb. 15 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The demonstration was purely secular and attended by just 60 people.

Christian denominations, too, including the 80-million member Russian Orthodox Church, have been muted and slow in their response to an issue that is prompting fasting, prayer and civil disobedience in the West.

At the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the world’s Orthodox Christian churches, there is only a hint of the months of dogged anti-war activism of Pope John Paul II or the outspokenness of the archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the world’s Anglicans.

The church’s ailing head, Patriarch Alexy II, has decried a potential attack, saying he found the “supremacy” of the United States “alarming” in a March 6 meeting with the Iraqi ambassador to Russia. Later in the day, the patriarch made the first visit of his 13-year reign to the Foreign Ministry to meet with foreign minister Igor Ivanov and denounce the war.

The Russian Orthodox Church leader became more outspoken last week just as the Russian Government adopted a hard-line anti-war position, threatening to use its United Nations security council veto and thus deny the United States the international imprimatur it is seeking for an attack. One prominent Orthodox priest sees a link.

“I don’t see a clearly Christian position here. It is influenced heavily by politics,” said Father Innokenty Pavlov, who worked in the church’s department of external church relations from 1987 to 1993. “In Soviet times, it was surreal. It was just a matter of serving the politicians.”

The Soviet legacy means that the Russian Orthodox Church often speaks quietly when it comes to the moral dimensions of practical issues, whether they be the well-documented atrocities of the Russian Army in Chechnya or Russia’s sky-high abortion rate of 1.7 abortions per live birth.

Such timidity has a price, according to a mufti in Russia’s third largest city, Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. Mufti Saidullin Sibagatulla said local Chechen Muslims split off from his mosque and began worshipping in an apartment because he would not speak out more forcefully on the war in Chechnya.

On the issue of Iraq, though, Sibagatulla is outspoken, calling those countries that would attack Iraq “bloodthirsty demons” in a broadside released last month to Yekaterinburg media. In a March 6 telephone interview, the mufti said he, as an ethnic Tartar, feels a special historical affinity for Iraqi Muslims.

“Between 922 and 962, missionaries from the Caliphate of Baghdad came to our ancestors, who were living on the Volga (River), and brought them the one god of Islam. That is when our modern history began,” Sibagatulla said.

Despite his sense of outrage at a probable attack on Iraq, the mufti said he is firmly against Russia’s estimated 20 million Muslims staging demonstrations. Such activism, he warned, might embolden Islamic fundamentalists and scare Russia’s Christian majority.

In Azerbaijan, the mostly Muslim nation located about 150 miles from Iraq, believers are not happy with their government’s largely pro-U.S. stance but aren’t doing anything about it, either, observed Azer Ramizoglu, a Muslim human rights activist.

“The main reason, basically, is that Saddam has entirely discredited himself. He’s got the blood of more than a million Muslims on his hands. He’s driven his people to the edge of death,” wrote Ramizoglu in an e-mail exchange from the Azeri capital, Baku.

When it comes to supporters of an attack on Iraq, they either keep quiet about it _ like some Jewish leaders _ or are to be found among the charismatic Protestant movements growing fast throughout most of the former Soviet Union.

“I raise two hands in favor of war in Iraq,” said Pastor Alexei Ledyayev, head of a megachurch based in the Latvian capital of Riga. “George Bush is a supreme believer, a supreme leader and someone with awesome responsibilities.”

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, a far more typical point of view is that voiced by a Pentecostal leader in Kyrgyzstan, the dirt poor Central Asian country bordering China.

“Iraq is far away and we’ve got our own problems,” said Pastor Vasily Kuzin, who heads the 8,000-member Church of Jesus Christ in the capital Bishkek. “We’re just trying to survive here. People are far removed from politics. And, everything is forbidden here anyway. There are no demonstrations.”

DEA END BROWN