Saturday, January 24, 2015

Russian Orthodox Church Wants to Canonize 19th Century Missionary who Converted Muslims

Paul Goble


            Staunton, January 24 – In another indication that the Moscow Patriarchate plans to end the restrictions it has imposed on itself concerning missionary work among traditional religions, including Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church is seeking to canonize Nikolay Ilminsky, a 19th century scholar who worked to convert Muslims in the Middle Volga and Central Asia.


            At the very least, it is certain to alarm some Volga Tatars because it was Ilminsky (1822-1891) whose work led to an increase in the number of Kryashens, as the “baptized” Tatars are known and who at present consider themselves a nationality distinct from the second largest nation in the Russian Federation, the Tatars.


            Indeed, in advance of the 2002 census and to a lesser extent before the 2010 census, Russian officials and activists promoted the Kryashen identity as a means of reducing the size and thus the importance of the Volga Tatars within the Russian demographic and political firmament.


            But Ilminsky’s role in the 19th century, which involved developing Cyrillic-based alphabets for many peoples in the region in order to publish Christian literature and thus to convert Muslims to Orthodoxy, was far larger, and as a symbol, he remains central to the Russian imperial project there.


As a result, many Russians in recent years have sought to boost his status. Canonization would represent a major step in that direction.


            Last fall, with the blessing of Metropolitan Anastasii of Kazan and Tatarstan, Kryashens and some others began assembling the materials necessary for Ilminsky’s canonization, a cause Russian Orthodox activists in Moscow have now taken up as well ( and


            According to one Orthodox missionary among the Kryashens now, Father Dmitry Sizov, “believing Kryashens even during [Ilminsky’s] life considered him a holy man,” a view that has “only intensified in our times” not only among them but among the Chuvash and other indigenous peoples of the Volga and Urals regions.


            Some to this day call him “the apostle of the Volga indigenes” and “the apostle of the Kryashens,” Sizov says.


            Ilminsky had many followers among civil and religious authorities in the region, and a major reason that some in the Moscow Patriarchate may want to declare him a saint is that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia earlier canonized one of them, Bishop Andrey, who was executed by the Soviets. 

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