By Paul Goble
Suggestions by Russian Orthodox hierarchs that priests might under certain circumstances run for office have sparked a counter-suggestion by one Muslim leader there that mullahs and muftis should do the same, setting the stage for a new confrontation between the two faiths that both officials and some religious leaders may want to avoid.
That election campaigns can be the occasion for heightened ethnic tensions in the Russian Federation is an old observation, and the danger that this could be so in the upcoming votes there have already sparked efforts to secure pledges from potential candidates that they won’t “ethnicize” politics. (See, for example, www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/180569/.)
But if the Russian authorities may succeed to some degree in reducing the amount of attention to the nationality question in these elections – and past experience suggests they may not be able to achieve as much as they hope — they may face an even more difficult challenge if religious leaders get directly involved.
On Wednesday, the Moscow Patriarchate posted on its official site the following document. Patriarch Kirill, it said, believes that “at the current historical moment, hierarchs and priests cannot put forward their candidacies for elections in any organs of representative power of any countries and any levels.”
But, the document continued, “exceptions to this rule can be made only on the basis of extreme church necessity” by the Holy Synod or the Synod of a self-administering church” on an individual basis, a negative statement that nonetheless in the minds of many opens the way for priests to run for office.
In a report on this declaration, the “Osobaya bukhva” site stressed this possibility, entitling its article “In Power with God” and beginning it with the declaration thast “representatives of the clergy will be able to advance their candidates in elections to organs of representative power” (www.specletter.com/elections/2011-02-03/s-bogom-vo-vlast.html).
Nikolay Mitrokhin, a specialist on Orthodoxy at Bremen University, said that in his view, the church probably will not want to take that step: The church, he said, “as a religious organization in European countries has lost popularity and prefers not to connect itself with politics in order not to be drawn into this or that political scandal.”
And he pointed to another reason the Russian Orthodox Church might refrain from doing so: If it takes this step, “one can predict” that “representatives of other confessions – Islam and Judaism – will do the same,” something that could create serious problems under current conditions in the Russian Federation.
As the “Osobaya bukhva” article pointed out, however, there is a tradition of having religious officials serve in parliament in Russia. “In the last stages of the existence of the Soviet state, there were priests in the USSR Supreme Soviet,” although they were more a decoration than a real political forced.
But the most important reason for restraint, the portal continued, is that many Russians, especially in the blogosphere, are “already angry about the excessively close ties of higher government bureaucrats and church hierarchs,” ties that make it unclear whether the church would be using the powers or the powers the church.
Father Andrey Kurayev, the outspoken Orthodox deacon, tried to play down the possibility that the Patriarchate would permit any priests to run in Russian elections. He noted that the Russian Orthodox Church has representatives in many countries and that this decision has more to do with their situation than with that in Russia.
“In Russia today, there is no need to have priests in the parliament,” he said. But he said that if one “imagined a situation 20 years from now where a party appeared in our country declaring that if it came to power, it would impose on Russia all the package of defense of homosexual rights which have been adopted in the West.”
In that case, Kurayev said, there might be good reason for Orthodox priests and hierarchs to run for office.
Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate, agreed. “The Church today is successfully cooperating with the state in many sectors.” Consequently, there is “no basis” for priests to run for office. Indeed, he said, in Church language, “the term ‘exceptional case’ in fact means ‘never.’”
But the genie is already out of the bottle. Abdulla Ishmukhametov, the head of the Muslim community of the Far Eastern Federal District who is subordinate to the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Part of Russia, told the media that mullahs may decide to run for office in Russia soon (www.islam.ru/rus/2011-02-03/#35538).
The declaration of the Russian Orthodox Church thus serves as a model for why Muslims might take that step, he continued. “We attempt to advance our ideas, but the representative powers that be rarely listen to us.”
Running mullahs for office is one way the Islamic leaders could attract attention.
And he added that “it is completely possible” that Muslim religious leaders “will run in elections for the Legislative Assembly of Primorsky kray already in this year.” If that in fact happens, the Russian Orthodox Church would likely respond in kind, setting the stage for religious competition in yet another sphere of Russian life.