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Russia: Putin Enlists Help Of Russia's Religious Leaders To Fight Terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on Russia's religious communities to help fight terrorism. Leaders from Russia's Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faiths all indicated their general agreement with Putin's aims. Putin's call comes amid ongoing worries of inter-ethnic tensions in the North Caucasus following the Beslan school siege.

Prague, 30 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Putin made the call at a meeting with the country's top religious leaders yesterday. They have a particular role, he said, in countering terrorism -- a task that requires a joint effort.

"The fight against terrorism is also -- or perhaps first and foremost -- a fight for people's minds," Putin said. "In the current situation, when one of the criminals' goals is to direct anger of people of a different faith or nationality toward people of other religions and nationalities, it is our task to build a moral barrier in their way."

Putin's audience included the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii II; chief rabbi Berl Lazar; Ismail Berdiev, a top Muslim leader; and a Catholic archbishop.

Putin made no direct reference to the North Caucasus, scene of this month's bloody school siege. But he used similar language to an address he made immediately after the tragedy.

"In Russia, where many ethnic groups and religions have tried to live peacefully from time immemorial, the fight against terrorism is a fight for the unity of the country," Putin said.
Critics accuse Putin of using terrorism as an excuse to boost his already considerable powers.

The religious leaders were largely sympathetic to Putin's words -- as they have been to his measures, announced following the Beslan siege, to improve security. These include a proposal to end the direct election of regional governors. Instead, regional assemblies would elect candidates nominated by the president.

According to a statement quoted by news agencies, the religious leaders said they support "the actions announced by the president to ensure Russian citizens' security and to reign in terrorism."

Those plans have been controversial, with critics saying Putin is using terrorism as an excuse to boost his already considerable powers.

But there was apparently no such criticism at yesterday's meeting.

Berdiev voiced his support, especially, as he said imams in the North Caucasus have also been victims of what he called "aggression against Russian Islam": "I should note that in Chechnya, some 20 imams have been killed by bandits. And the mufti of Daghestan was blown up as he was traveling to a mosque."

Putin's meeting comes amid ongoing worries of simmering tensions in the North Caucasus following the Beslan school siege, which left almost 350 people dead, half of them children.

During the Beslan crisis, an armed group calling for -- among other things -- the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya took some 1,200 children, teachers, and parents hostage at a school in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia.

Earlier this week, a former regional leader said the situation in the North Caucasus is now "very dangerous." Ruslan Aushev, a former president of Ingushetia, said there are signs that "certain powers" in North Ossetia are calling for the settling of scores with the Ingush as soon as the 40 days of mourning are over.

Pavel Baev, an expert on the Caucasus at Oslo's International Peace Research Institute, said religion has an important role to play in stabilizing the region.

"It definitely has a role -- in particular in defusing the smoldering conflicts between Ossetians and Ingush," Baev said. "It should be there. It should be addressed in every house, [but] it's not done. The conflict is treated very bureaucratically, both by the authorities and the church. That's why I feel the possibilities are underutilized and probably wasted."

As for yesterday's meeting, Baev said it appears to have been merely a formal affair: "I generally feel that the meeting is very much a pro-forma event, much in the same way as Putin's meetings with the [regional] governors and several other meetings he's having these days, where people are gathered to express support for his cause, where there is no real exchange of opinions, and where Putin isn't really taking anything in."

(compiled from news agency reports)