March 2009

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Russia’s Marginalized Muslim Peoples

by Patricia Depew

“Russia is Turning Muslim,” Ravil Gaynutdin head of the Council of Muftis announced this message in a recent interview for the Times of London. “We are running out of space to accommodate all the Muslims who pray on Fridays! I expect it will not be long before we will have a beautiful mosque in Moscow’s Red Square!”

Ethnic Russians today are alarmed by such words. Russia has had hundreds of years of conflict with Muslims. To be Russian means you are culturally identified as a Christian Russian Orthodox.

Russia’s Orthodox Christian Roots

The roots to this identity trace back to the late 10th century and Russia’s Prince Vladimir, who wanted his new nation state to have one culture and one national religion. The story goes that he considered Islam. The Arab Muslims had already conquered the Dagestani peoples of southern Russia in the 8th century, and the first official Russian Muslim state was established in Voga Bulgaria in A.D. 922. After considering Islam, he decided that the Russians would never stop drinking vodka, so he figured Islam would not work. Next he looked to the Jews and saw only oppression. After listening to a Roman Catholic missionary, he discerned that his new, independent nation state would need to give allegiance to Rome if they became Roman Catholic. That was not what he wanted. Finally in A.D. 988 he chose Byzantine Christianity after being impressed by the worship style of Greek missionaries from the Byzantine Empire which included mostly what is now Greece and Turkey.

When the communists took over Russia in 1917 they tried, but failed, to crush any form of religion, including the Russian Orthodox Church. When communism fell in 1991, Russia experienced a visible resurgence in religious activity, primarily among the Orthodox. In 1997 Russia passed a law granting freedom of choice of religion for its people. According to a very recent poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 63 percent of Russian respondents considered themselves Russian Orthodox, five percent considered themselves Muslim, and less than one percent considered themselves Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. Another 12 percent said they believe in God, but did not practice any religion, and 16 percent said they are non-believers. Only between three and seven percent of Russians attend church even once a month. This figure for church attendance is one of the lowest rates of any Christian nation in the world.

Islam in Russia today

Islam is the second most widely professed religion in the Russian Federation, and it is rapidly growing. This is largely due to the large increase in the birth rate among Russia’s Muslims while that of Orthodox Russians is declining. One Russian expert on Islam, Roman Silantyev, stated that Russia has only between seven to nine million practicing Muslims while the rest are Muslim by culture and name only.

Russia’s Muslims come from extremely diverse ethnic backgrounds. Major Islamic communities are concentrated among the minority nationalities residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea: the Adyghs, Balkars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush, Kabardins, Karachay, and numerous Dagestani nationalities. In the middle Volga Basin are large populations of Tatars, Udmurts, and Chuvash, most of whom are Muslims. Virtually all the Muslims in Russia adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam. In a few areas, notably Chechnya, there is a tradition of Sufism, a mystical variety of Islam that stresses the individual’s search for union with God. An estimated 3,000,000-4,000,000 Muslims are migrants from former Soviet regions, including 2,000,000 Azeris, 1,000,000 Kazakhs, and several hundred thousand Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz.

Paul Goble, an expert on Islam in Russia stated, “The Muslim growth rate since 1989 is between 40 and 50 percent depending on ethnic groups. Most of that is in the Caucasus [region] or from immigration from Central Asia or Azerbaijan.” According to the International Mission Board, in 15 years, the population of Muslims in Moscow has grown from one percent to 20 percent. Russia had about 300 mosques in 1991 and now there are at least 8,000, about half of which were built with money from abroad, especially from Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There were no Islamic religious schools in 1991 and today there are between 50 and 60, teaching as many as 50,000 students. The number of Muslims from Russia going on the haj each year has jumped from 40 in 1991 to over 13,500 today.

Increasing Fear of Muslims in Russia

The rise in the number of Muslims in Russia, terrorist attacks and the steep decline of the ethnic Russian population have given rise to a greater degree of fear of Muslims in Russia. In recent years, the Russian government has expelled dozens of foreign Muslims accused of preaching radical Islam in Russia. Currently, four Russian regions have introduced mandatory classes in Orthodox Christianity in all schools. The Russian Cabinet announced a new law that will ban foreigners, most of them Muslims, from working in retail stalls and markets, starting this year. The director of the Federal Migration Service, said, “foreigners should not be allowed to create ‘ethnic closed societies’ in which they outnumber ‘native Russians’ in any district or region of the country.” Deeply troubled, Rusham Abbyasov, a spokesman for Russia’s Council of Muftis, which represents Islam’s spiritual leaders in the country, stated: “The main reasons for antagonism toward Russia’s Muslims is their portrayals in the media. On Russian television, Muslims are most often portrayed as either criminals or religious radicals waging a holy war against Christians. One of Russia’s bestselling novels last year, “The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris,” depicted a mid-21st century Europe where Islam was the state religion and Christians were forced to live in ghettos. When people hear the phrase ‘Allahu Akbar’ (meaning, ‘God is great’ in Arabic), they immediately think of people shooting at them or blowing themselves up.

Muslim leaders say the nationalist rhetoric reflects a clear lack of understanding of Russian history. Muslims have had roots in Russia for centuries, so it is not right to say that Russia is a Christian country. They say that Russians either don’t know the history or they are ignoring it.”

Orthodox Efforts to Reach Muslims

The Orthodox Church hierarchy has denounced nationalist and anti-Islamic statements. Orthodox patriarch Alexey II stated, “Orthodox Christians, Muslims and members of other traditional churches have lived in Russia side by side for centuries. Russia has never had religious wars and, I hope, it never will.”

There is another side to the story. According to Roman Silantyev, executive secretary of the Inter-religious Council in Russia, “2.5 million Muslims have converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity in Russia, while only 2,500 Orthodox have converted to Islam.” He said that most of the converts to the Russian Orthodox Church are non-practicing Muslims. Many of these are young and have married non-Muslims. Muslims who regularly attend mosque rarely convert. He went on to say that the conversions happen not so much due to evangelism, which is mainly done by Protestants, but it was because of Russia’s roots in Orthodox Christianity. He further explained that after the Beslan School Massacre in North Ossetia, where Muslim gunmen killed hundreds of children, the number of Muslims dropped by 50 percent. It appears that tens of thousands of Muslims may have accepted baptism after this 2004 tragedy. Muslim sources acknowledged that after each major Muslim terrorist incident in Russia, thousands of Muslims have converted to Christianity.

Let’s Pray! Pray that nominal Muslims will seek truth through Christ.
Pray that Russian believers will seek God with all of their hearts, souls and minds and become strong witnesses of our Lord to Muslims.
Pray that God’s Word will be understood in the languages of Russia’s Muslims and that His message will be conveyed through radio, television and the Internet.
Pray that more Russian Orthodox will become committed believers.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

I am writing this the day after our 2008 elections here in the United States. My state, California, had recently adopted same-sex marriage, because four justices considered it to be constitutional. Then Proposition 8 appeared on the November election ballot that would force the state constitution to define marriage as being “between one man and one woman.” Voters in this state have a “live and let live” attitude towards social issues, and there was a lot more money spent to defeat the proposition than to uphold it. Public opinion polls indicated that it would be defeated. In the natural realm, it would surely have failed.

But something happened that even won the attention of the highly secular Los Angeles Times. A group of intercessors, led by Pastor Lou Engel, spent months praying and fasting for Proposition 8 to pass. Apparently there were 3,000 churches involved with this prayer effort. Against any human reasoning, it did pass! Oh me with my little faith! I really didn’t expect that to happen!

Likewise, it is very hard to imagine small people groups in Russia that have been Muslim for centuries putting their faith in Christ. To a large degree, members of the Russian Orthodox Church provide a poor example of how Christians should live. But for this month at least, can we all imagine these Muslims giving their hearts to the Savior? Will we have faith as big as a mustard seed, and pray accordingly?