Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Russian Army Faces Problems in Finding Chaplains -- Especially for Muslim Troops

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 12 – Sergey Shoygu, the new Russian defense minister, yesterday said that the Russian army was committed to the success of establishing a multi-religious chaplaincy, despite the fact that up to now, the army has hired only 30 Orthodox priests and two Muslim mullahs for the slots allocated to that corpse last year.

                Neither the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church not the leaders of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews have been happy with the slow pace of recruitment, but the defense ministry has proceeded slowly is that some fear “supporters of radical Islam” will penetrate the military “under the guise” of Islamic chaplains (

            In July 2011, the Russian defense ministry said that it had created 240 slots for chaplains in the military but over the last eighteen months, it has been able to screen and hire only 30 priests, two mullahs, and none from the other “traditional” faiths, including Buddhism and Judaism, despite the presence in Russian ranks of followers of those and other denominations.

            Given the absence of an official state ideology, Aleksey Grishin, the president of the Religion and Soociety Information and Analysis Center in Moscow, says, many commanders are interested in having chaplains on their staffs in order to “create the motivation for self-sacrifice” that the military requires.

            The Moscow Patriarchate has long had its own department for work with military personnel, and it is handling the selections of the Russian Orthodox chaplains. The church even hopes to have one of its hierarchs occupy the new deputy minister’s position that Shoygu said will oversee the chaplaincy corps.

            But other faiths for various reasons have not articulated such organizations.  The Buddhists have none at all, even though Buddhists now make up 18 percent of Russian forces in the Trans-Baikal. And the Jews have only the department for cooperatioin with the Armed Forces, Emergency Services and Law Enforcement Institutions of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR).

            The biggest problem concerns the Muslims. They are the second largest group of believers among uniformed personnel, but there is no central Muslim hierarchy and widespread distrust of the regional Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) that some Islamic leaders have proposed as interlocutors.

            Aleksey Grishin told “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that he was very concerned about the role of such groups.  “For ten years,” he observed, he had been responsible for cooperation between the Presidential Administration and Muslim organnizations, and “I will say that Russian Islam is not united.” As a result, “religious extremists could easily penetrate the military.”

            “Today,” the Moscow expert continued, “the law on freedom of conscience makes it easy for anyone to register muftis.  One need only assemble ten people, present their passports and create a local religious organization. Then with three such organizations coming together, it is possible to elect one’s own mufti.”

            Given that, he argued, “there is no guarantee that the religious leader chosen in such a way will not profess radical Islam.”  He suggested that there were only two Muslim groups not infected by extremism: the Central MSD in Ufa and the Coordinatioin Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus.

            That would exclude two of the largest Muslim administrations from participation in this process, and it is certain that their leaderships will object to being excluded. But choosing mullahs and imams for the chaplaincy corps may ultimately prove to be the least of Moscow’s problems with regard to Islam and the military.

            Rais Izmaylov, pro-rector of the Moscow Islamic University, told “Moskovskiye novosti” today that commanders have often turned to him and his staff for help with problems between Russian officers and Muslim troops, problems for which they have not received sufficient training to handle on their own (

            “It is no secret,” he said, that “there have been conflicts between Muslim troops and commanders and that they have arisen as a rule on the basis of a lack of understanding about and knowledge of Islamic traditions.” Muslims are committed to obeying their officers, but they often object to commands to perform what they see as menial work beneath their dignity.

            Sometimes, Izaylov said, Muslim soldiers refuse to obey orders to do things like clean te floors, saying that “’in the Koran it is written that a man must not clean the floors as that is not men’s work.’” If commanders knew that “in fact the Koran does not say anything like that,” then they could easily resolve the situation. Islamic chaplains may thus be able to help.

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