By Paul Goble
On the day the Kremlin created a Commission on Inter-National and Inter-Religious Relations, experts at a Moscow conference on the social role of religion expressed skepticism that religion by itself could play an integrative role in the multi-religious and mutli-national Russian society.
Indeed, in the words of Professor Ekaterina Elbakyan of the Moscow Academy of Labor and Social Relations, “to speak about the integrating role of religion in poly-ethnic and multi-cultural societies is not serious.” Instead, she argued, “it is necessary to seek a different basis for integration, for example, law” (www.ej.ru/?a=news&id=10434).
And another expert, Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA analytic center, said that the creation of this new commission could be valuable as religious leaders have a role to play in helping individuals and groups overcome conflict situations. But that is not the only thing that can happen when religious leaders get involved.
He pointed to certain negative consequences of such intervention by religious figures of the kind included in the new commission, including giving “certain ethnically charged conflicts … a religious coloration,” that could have the result of making existing conflicts even more difficult to resolve.
However that may be, the creation of the new commission is clearly an important event for what it says about thinking in the Kremlin. Its composition does not follow the “traditional” religions list that the Moscow authorities have normally followed, leaving out several key players from the Muslim community and including instead Catholics and others.
At the same time, the new group is dominated by the Moscow Patriarchate with Father Vsevolod Chaplin playing the main role. At the commission’s first session, he stressed that “peacemaking work is especially important when inter-ethnic relations are being tested and when the unity of our people without which our future is unthinkable is being attacked from inside and out” (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=39714).
But if the Kremlin and its commission were confident religious groups could play a positive role from above, speakers at the Moscow conference were not. Zhan Toshchenko, a candidate member of the Academy of Sciences said that achieving moral political unity was only possible from below (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=39639).
Andrey Sebentsov, another expert, argued that in Dmitry Medvedev’s “conception of modernization … the role of religion had been reduced to a minimum.” But in practice, he continued, the Russian Orthodox Church has dominated his thinking and led him to adopt “the Orthodox position” on many issues.
What is needed instead, Sebentsov said, is for the government to find “a common language” with religious leaders of all faiths rather than allowing itself to be captured by just one of them, at least if there is to be any hope that religious groups will play a positive role in overcoming conflict rather than making the current situation worse.
Father Yakov Krotov added another dimension to this discussion. He suggested that the social role of religion in Russia had been put in doubt by what he called “the contemporary ‘religious revolution’ in which faiths have been subject to “privatization” by one or another religious leader, something he said only honest dialogue could prevent.
Meanwhile, Ruslan Kurbanov, a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, pointed to yet another problem with groups like the new commission: The Kremlin may confuse the loyalty of particular figures with religious tolerance more generally and thus find itself in even more difficulty (religion.ng.ru/society/2011-03-02/6_islam.html).