Russian Army Looks to Enlist Orthodox Chaplains
Monday, February 6, 2006. Page 1.
Army Looks to Enlist Orthodox Chaplains
By Nabi Abdullaev
Captain Dmitry Kuzin turned to God after an incident three years
ago, when his entire unit escaped a rebel ambush in southern
Chechnya without a scratch. The day before the ambush, an Orthodox
priest had visited Kuzin's unit and prayed with his men.
"I know that some men attended the prayers, which were held right in
the field, due to fatigue. Others prayed because they felt how close
they were to death -- of their friends, or themselves," said Kuzin,
a slim man in his mid-30s, as he walked out of an Orthodox church in
southern Moscow and crossed himself. "I was among those who went
there because of fatigue.
"After that day, I began thinking that maybe God really stretched
out his hand over us. After all, we were fighting against non-
Christians," Kuzin said, adding that since their escape from the
ambush a few men in his unit had joined him in becoming true
believers, and now wore crosses and prayed in church.
The influence of the Orthodox Church in the military has been
growing with the encouragement of the top brass over recent years,
and it could get a further fillip later this year as officials look
for ways to improve morale after a brutal hazing on New Year's Eve
that led to a conscript's legs and genitals being amputated,
prompting a national outcry.
When asked about the case in his annual news conference this week,
President Vladimir Putin called for greater efforts at moral
education in the military. One proposal already under consideration
by the Defense Ministry is the formal recruitment of chaplains into
some military units.
Orthodox priests already preach in many units, including those
fighting in the North Caucasus, but currently do not have the formal
status of chaplains. They are allowed in under agreements that unit
commanders sign with local eparchies.
Defense Ministry officials have welcomed the idea of hiring Orthodox
chaplains as a way to bolster soldiers' morale and combat the
incidence of hazing and suicide in the military. But nongovernmental
organizations have raised concerns about the exclusion of other
faiths and denominations, and about official pressure on soldiers to
attend Orthodox services.
Some religious scholars also claim that such a close relationship
between the Orthodox Church and the military would be
unconstitutional, as it would blur the lines between church and
"In principle, we are ready to take priests onto the Defense
Ministry's staff," Nikolai Reznik, head of the ministry's department
responsible for maintaining troop morale, told RIA-Novosti in a
recent interview. "We need priests who are ready to work with
servicemen at the local level, right in the military units."
Reznik said that none of the four faiths recognized by the state --
Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism -- were yet ready
to send thousands of representatives into the military.
One of the Orthodox Church's main spokesmen, Vsevolod Chaplin, who
heads the Moscow Patriarchate's external relations department, said
in October that there were plans afoot for the military to hire
chaplains, but that the church still had issues to resolve.
"Society is pushing us for the institution of the regular military
priesthood to appear and I think that we have all prerequisites for
this," he said, RIA-Novosti reported.
Sergei Burda, head of the Defense Ministry's department responsible
for contacts with religious organizations, said the hiring of
chaplains will be decided on a case-by-case basis "if such a need
Burda said Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov would consider chaplains
after a round of public consultations this year.
Currently, about 150 Orthodox Christian churches operate at military
bases across the country, and this number is growing, he said. In
these units, the rate of suicide among servicemen is lower and
hazing is less common than elsewhere in the military, Burda said.
"We are ready to use the Russian Orthodox Church to fight suicide
and hazing," he said. "We are focusing on this."
The law currently makes no provision for military chaplains and
clearly forbids the creation of religious groups in units and the
use of military authority to advocate any religion. Off-duty
servicemen are allowed to participate in religious ceremonies as
Burda said the military had general cooperation agreements with the
Orthodox Church and the Council of Muftis, the top Muslim
organization in Russia.
Burda and Chaplin said cults and proselytizing were not allowed in
Oleg Askalenok, head of the Russian Military Christian Union, an NGO
uniting mostly Protestant groups seeking to preach among the
military, said the Orthodox Church was trying to monopolize religion
in the military by branding other Christian denominations, including
Protestants, as cults.
"We are allowed to work in some units where we have friendly
commanders, but only until the day when a local Orthodox Christian
eparchy gets to hear about it," he said. "Then, the commanders bar
us, saying they don't want problems with their superiors."
Askalenok cited the example of 30 Protestants serving in a unit in
the Kaluga region who asked their commanders to allow them to have a
prayer room on the base, only to have their plea rejected. He said
such initiatives by Orthodox Christians, in contrast, usually found
favor with commanders.
Askalenok and Sergei Mozgovoi, head of the Liberty of Consciousness
Institute, a Moscow-based think tank advocating freedom of religious
expression, said that at the annual seminars held jointly by the
General Staff and the Orthodox Church, which they had attended,
senior Orthodox priests told officers that other Christian groups,
including Protestants, were cults.
"There is also a lot of hate speech against Muslims and,
regretfully, not a single officer stands up to cut it short,"
Mozgovoi said the Orthodox Church's de facto monopoly over religion
in the military threatened to incite religious conflict in the
ranks, where many servicemen belong to other faiths and
denominations, and accused the top brass of buddying up with the
Burda said, however, that unit commanders attended religious
services and would not allow any propagating of xenophobia or
The head of the Moscow Patriarchate's military liaison department,
Dimitry Smirnov, declined a request for comment.
Mozgovoi said introducing military chaplains was against the
Constitution, which clearly separates church and state.
"Also, there are no guidelines defining what and how the chaplains
would preach to soldiers," he said. "Without this, their teaching
will be reduced to the propagation of xenophobia."
Sergei Melkov, a consultant to the Council of Muftis on military
issues, said the position of the senior Muslim clergy was that no
single faith should dominate in the military.
He warned that if armed conflict in the predominantly Muslim North
Caucasus intensified, and the military were to receive its religious
instruction exclusively from the Orthodox Church, units could split
along religious and ethnic lines and the country's unity could be
Also, there could be a conflict between Orthodox priests and the
2,500 officers who are responsible for morale in the military,
"Giving priests the status of chaplains would look like
acknowledging that these officers have been failing at their jobs,"
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