Saturday, February 24, 2018

In Soviet Times, More Russians Attended Orthodox Services in Daghestan than Do Now

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – The killing of five Orthodox Christian women by a Muslim youth in Kizlyar on February 18 has attracted new attention to the small Russian Orthodox community in Daghestan, its role as a protector of the ethnic Russians there, and its relations with both the civil authorities and various Muslim groups.

            The Meduza news agency dispatched Sasha Sulim, one of its correspondents, to intervene key players in that North Caucasus republic as well as experts on religious affairs in the North Caucasus more generally. His report provides an unusually intriguing picture of what has been going on (

            Sulim spoke first with Father Pavel, aged 29, who serves as the pastor of the Russian church where the attack occurred as well as a pastor for one of the other two Orthodox congregations in Kizlyar. He called that city “an outpost of Orthodoxy” in Daghestan because it is the republic’s most Russian city: 40 percent of 50,000 residents are ethnic Russians.

            “My task,” the priest says, “is to support these people so that they will not feel abandoned by others, will understand that the church is at their sides, and that the Lord will not leave anyone.  Between 150 and 180 parishioners of Kizlyar’s three Orthodox churches attend services each week.

            After the attack on the church, he reported, local police have stood guard at the entrances of all the Orthodox churches in Daghestan and held meetings with Russian parishioners. One of them said that “even in Soviet times, when religion was prohibited, there were more people in church on holidays.”

            “In the 1990s,” he continued, “a very large number of ethnic Russians left Daghestan. There was simply no one left to go to church. They left because of economic difficulties and also because non-Russian clans more or less blocked their being hired or promoted in most local institutions.

            Roman Lunkin, the head of the center for the study of religion and society at the Moscow Institute of Europe, said that in the early 1990s, Orthodox began to revive in Daghestan but that trend was overwhelmed by the outflow of ethnic Russians and then stopped altogether.  Local Muslims viewed the Russians as being “’on the other side of the barricades.’”

            Archbishop Varlaam of Makhachkala and Grozny also remembers the 1990s as a difficult time. Then he was pastor at a church in Ingushetia.  He said that it once happened that a Muslim shot a Russian family but that the reasons behind that action were not religious, although he didn’t elaborate.

            The Makhachkala bishopric, formed in 2012, includes Dagehstan, Chechnya and Ingushetia; and Orthodoxy got a second wind, although the archbishop said he wouldn’t call it a revival but rather a period during which “Orthodoxy began to occupy a more solid place in the Daghestan system of power” and developed ties with local Muslim and Jewish groups.

            Valaam added that the Russian community in Daghestan is still at risk and that “if the state doesn’t help it, then it will be very hard for the Russians to survive here. He said there are about 60,000 Russians in Daghestan, 2,000 in Ingushetia and 10,000 in Chechnya.  Unfortunately, their number and the number of parishioners are both falling.

            Lunkin says that “neither now nor at the end of the 1990s or beginning of the 2000s did the Russian Orthodox Church seek to spread the Christian faith to the indigenous peoples of Daghestan. Its main goal was the consolidation and support of the ethnic Russian population.” Protestant groups, however, were active in missionary work.

            Paradoxically, the Moscow scholar continues, “the Kizlyar tragedy has strengthened the position of Orthodoxy in the region” because it has led to closer cooperation between the church and Islam and between both and the state agencies. And it has further isolated the Wahhabis whom many associate with extremism.

            But these events have highlighted something else: the rapid growth of Salafi Muslims in the republic.  Sulim spoke with Imam Nimatulla Radzhabov of the so-called Salafi Tangim Mosque in Makhachakala.  In 1999, it had about 400 parishioners. Now, it attracts 5,000 on holidays and “about 3,000” every week.

                 The police closely monitor its activities, Radzhabov says. Indeed, the men in uniform call the mosque “the chicken which lays the golden eggs,” in this case, not really eggs, but golden stars for their shoulder boards.

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