ISSN 2330-717X

Overreach By Russian Orthodox Prelate In North Caucasus Seen Triggering Serious Ethnic Problems – OpEd

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The civil authorities in Karachayevo-Cherkessia are putting pressure on the Congress of the Karachay People for complaining to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill about the actions of Archbishop Feofilakta of Pyatigorsk and demanding that regional church leader be fired and replaced.

Among the actions Feofilakta has taken that have outraged the local people is ascribing to Russian Orthodoxy Alan churches and even pagan heroes. The Alania churches were constructed long before Orthodoxy existed, and the pagan heroes from the Narts have no links to the Russian church (ng.ru/ng_religii/2021-06-15/9_509_caucasus.html).

Karachay and Circassian activists have long complained about Feofilakta’s actions, but apparently what triggered the local authorities to come down on them was that they appealed directly to the Russian patriarchate rather than keeping the issue within the republic. Apparently, the KBR leaders feared a negative reaction from Moscow.

The authors of the appeal say that Feofilakta has shown no respect for local traditions and has promoted missionary activity among Muslims, something that the four traditional religions of Russia supposedly have said they will not engage in. But the archbishop has ignored that and thus offended Muslims and more generally Muslim peoples.

So far, the ROC MP has dug in; but Karachay and Circassian activists say that “if Patriarch Kirill does not fulfill” their demands, they will raise this issue with Vladimir Putin and ultimately with Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople. Other NGOs in the North Caucasus are supporting them in this.

Roman Lunkin, a specialist on Russian religious affairs at Moscow’s Institute of Europe, says that what the archbishop has been doing reflects a shift in Orthodox action, one that means it is increasingly inclined to conduct missionary work where it isn’t supposed to and to ascribe to Orthodoxy churches and traditions that have nothing to do with that denomination.

The archbishop, the Moscow scholar says, has developed ties with local Cossacks and is convinced that together with them, the church must play “a big role in society.” But his expansive claims have offended Orthodox of other nationalities as well as pagan groups in Ossetia. Other Orthodox hierarchs have done the same across Russia.

Aleksey Malashenko, a political scientist who often writes on religious issues, says that what Feofilakta has been doing reflects a lack of delicacy and a failure to appreciate cultural diversity, things produced by “a sense of the superiority and primary in the religious life of the country” of Russian Orthodoxy.

The Patriarchate feels much the same and so is unlikely to rein in its subordinates or admit mistakes, something that means the current religio-ethnic problems will only intensify, Malashenko says. And that means that what many see as small religious issues now will become serious political ones in the not distant future.

The way in which that can happen, he continues, was shown in the late 1980s. At that time, “the continued neglect of national movements led only to the growth and deepening of conflict.” And when that happened, it turned out that the problems couldn’t be solved. Something similar appears to be happening in the North Caucasus now.

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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