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Russian Army Looks to Enlist Orthodox Chaplains

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  • aggreen1
    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2006/02/06/003.html Monday, February 6, 2006. Page 1. Army Looks to Enlist Orthodox Chaplains By Nabi Abdullaev Staff
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2006

      Monday, February 6, 2006. Page 1.

      Army Looks to Enlist Orthodox Chaplains

      By Nabi Abdullaev
      Staff Writer

      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
      private citizens.

      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
      the military.

      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.

      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
      Orthodox clergy.

      Burda said, however, that unit commanders attended religious
      services and would not allow any propagating of xenophobia or
      religious intolerance.

      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,
      Melkov said.

      "Giving priests the status of chaplains would look like
      acknowledging that these officers have been failing at their jobs,"
      he said.

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