By Paul Goble
Because of the success Protestant missionaries have had in traditionally Muslim regions in the Russian Federation, some in the Orthodox Church want to make common cause with them against Islam, a view that the leader of the Evangelical Church there rejects.
In an interview published in the current issue of “NG-Religii,” Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, the president of the Russian United Union of Evangelical Christians, says that he is against such an approach that just as he is against “crusades in any of their manifestation” (religion.ng.ru/events/2011-04-06/1_episkop.html).
Ryakhovsky says that it is a fundamental tenet of his church that an individual is either a Christian or he is not and that ethnic or denominational differences are secondary to that fundamental requirement, but he adds that he does not want his church to become embroiled in a clash with followers of other faiths.
The recent murder of Bishop Artur Suleymanov in the North Caucasus, Ryakhovsky continues, “was not a war of Islam with Christianity,” however much some may want to treat it in that way. “In the Russian Caucasus,” he points out, “the number of imams killed is an order of magnitude greater than that of Christian pastors.”
Bishop Arthus, the Russian Evangelical leader continues, “lived very peaceably with his neighbors who professed Islam and was a man respected in their eyes as a man of the Book and a just figure. The same situation obtains in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan,” Ryakhovsky adds, because “we teach believers to be respectful toward all people, their culture [and] traditions.”
Bishop Ryakhovsky adds that he has longstanding and good relations with the leaders “of the majority of the major centralized Muslim structures of Russia,” relations that have allowed the realization of “joint projects in the majority in the social sphere and in the area of strengthening inter-ethnic and inter-confessional peace in our country.”
None of these leaders, the bishop adds, has ever criticized him or the Protestant community “for aggressiveness or anything else. But it is natural that the successes [that the Protestant churches have enjoyed in Russia] has generated jealousy … Not everyone likes this [and] it is usually easier to cry with the weeping than be glad with the joyous.”
One young Russian Orthodox priest recently approached him, Ryakhovsky recounts, and said that “his goal was to convert to Orthodoxy as many Protestants as possible in order that they then under Orthodox banners would convert Muslims to Orthodoxy.” He said that the success of the Protestants and their “charisma” made such an approach desirable.
After making this comment, the bishop says, the young priest turned away without waiting for an answer. Apparently, Ryakhovsky adds, the priest did not learn much Greek in seminary. Had he, the bishop said, he would have known that charisma is “a gift of God” and that one must search for it in oneself rather than “attempt to find it in others.”
What makes this exchange so intriguing is that it represents a break in the Moscow Patriarchate’s efforts to freeze out the Protestants whom it often calls “sects” just as Patriarch Kirill is expanding dialogue with the Catholics and that such attitudes reflect the sense even among the Orthodox that all Christians must come together to fight the growth of Islam.
How far either of these trends can go, of course, remains very much a matter of debate. On the one hand, many Orthodox priests and bishops oppose anything resembling ecumenism as recent events in Izhevsk. And on the other, a too public effort to unite Christians against Muslims in Russia would likely backfire, leading to even greater unity among the latter.