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Russia: Authorities Seek To Convert Beslan's Muslims

  • Paul Goble

http://gdb.rferl.org/0EC4D357-8139-48D1-B0CA-FE1C3055E547_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/0EC4D357-8139-48D1-B0CA-FE1C3055E547_mw800_mh600.jpg North Ossetian officials have sought to increase supervision of Muslim organizations in the year since the Beslan tragedy In the year since the Beslan tragedy, North Ossetian security officials have sought to close down all independent Muslim organizations there, a campaign that has caused at least some members of historically Islamic nationalities to announce their conversion to Orthodox Christianity.

Tartu, 6 September -- Prior to the terrorist attack, 70 percent of the residents of Beslan considered themselves Muslims, according to a report in "Nasha versiya" this week. This report is somewhat anomalous because Ossetians are traditionally Christians and they account for 60 percent of the republic's total population of some 710,000.

But now, the number of Muslims in Beslan has declined significantly as officials have indicated that they view anyone who "actively practices" Islam as "an enemy," according to religare.ru on 30 August.

Earlier this year, Taymuraz Kasaev, the North Ossetian minister for nationality affairs, said officials had decided they must take steps in order to ensure complete "transparency in the work of every social organization [and maintain] closer contacts with all religious and national communities."

The meaning behind Kasaev’s words quickly became clear. A local paper indicated that the authorities planned to shut down the activities of all Muslim groups that were not prepared to subordinate themselves to the government-financed and controlled Muslim Spiritual Directorate, a body that in North Ossetia is headed by a former police officer.

Over the next months, the authorities in Beslan and across North Ossetia arrested numerous independent Muslim leaders, sometimes even planting evidence on them and sentencing them to confinement in prison camps. And fearing arrest, other Muslim leaders either stopped preaching in public or fled the republic, "Nasha versiya" reports.

But this police campaign against "unofficial" Islam -- which had been the more dynamic part of the Muslim scene in Beslan as it has been elsewhere -- intentionally or not has had the effect of undermining the position of the official Islamic establishment and its followers as well.

On the one hand, this campaign led the local authorities to take an even harder line against official mosques. Plans to build a mosque in Beslan appear to have been put on permanent hold. Moreover, republic officials reportedly are considering closing down the main mosque of North Ossetia in Vladikavkaz and converting it into a museum of some kind.

And on the other, many members of historically Muslim nationalities are having themselves baptized, either as a result of their horror at what the Islamic radicals did at the school or, what is more likely in today’s climate, their recognition that being identified as a practicing Muslim in Beslan is potentially dangerous.

According to "Nasha versiya": "Many children who survived the terrorist act and the parents of those who did not have been baptized, despite the fact that earlier they considered themselves Muslims. And those residents of Beslan who died -- including Muslims -- have been buried according to Orthodox custom, and none of their relatives has complained.”

Russian Orthodox priests in Beslan have confirmed this development, Russian news agencies reported this week, with one priest reportedly saying that the number of people seeking baptisms in his parish alone had gone up 500 percent over the year before and in the republic as a whole risen by at least one-third.

Father Vladimir attributed these conversions -- which he said involved many who had been hostages -- to the activities of Bishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, who took an active role in the hostage crisis and in the treatment of the bereaved and wounded after the authorities ended the standoff.

But such conversions, however welcome they may be to the Orthodox Church, are not the end of the story. Many of these newly baptized may quickly fall away from their new faith. And at least some of those who had been the followers of unofficial or official Islam may now be driven to listen to underground Muslim activists with a more active and more radical message.

To the extent that happens -- and the experience of Muslims in both Soviet and post-Soviet times suggests this is the most likely outcome -- the efforts against Islam in Beslan over the past year may set the stage for more, rather than less, Islamist radicalism not only there but across the north Caucasus in the future.

See RFE/RL's dedicated webpage, see "Remembering Beslan"
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