Priests once served in the Tsarist army and, if new legislation coming before the Russian parliament has its way, priests will serve in the modern Russian Army.
Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, head of the department of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church for relations with the armed forces, sees it as the restoration of the natural order of things. A vocal advocate of the bill, he says that no one can doubt the central place of the Orthodox Church in Russian society.
"In Europe, there's 200 years of experience of priests serving in the army and in Germany, incidentally, they have a system which is very close to the one we're trying to organize," Smirnov said. "Of course this will improve things in the army, although sin is an ineradicable part of man and you can't eradicate it 100 percent. In general, the Russian [Orthodox] Church created Russia and if it turns its attention to such an important organization as the army I think it can only be a good thing."
Priests Raise Morale, But Could Also Raise Religious Tension
The weight of tradition aside, the driving force behind the move to reinstate the institution of military chaplains is the plunging morale of the armed forces. The army is badly paid, poorly equipped, riddled by corruption, and tarnished by the widespread practice of hazing.
President Vladimir Putin is among those who believe that military chaplains could help restore the faith of soldiers not just in God but in the honor of the armed forces. And there is some evidence to back him up.
Statistics gathered since 1997, when the Orthodox Church was given the right to work on an informal basis in the army, show that in those units where there are serving priests the incidences of hazing and suicides has significantly decreased.
But the bill has set alarm bells ringing -- both among secular Russians and among members of others faiths, in particular Russia's fast-growing Muslim community. It's estimated that some 20 percent of Russians come from historically Islamic nationalities. Among conscription-age Russians the percentage is even higher.
Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin spoke to RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. He is chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, one of the most influential Islamic organizations in the country.
Gainutdin complained that the legislation would grant the Russian Orthodox Church a monopoly in the armed forces and provoke tension between soldiers of different confessions.
"The Council of Muftis of Russia opposes the establishment of Russian Orthodox or Imam military officers in the army. It's not yet possible today. We're not ready for it and, what is more important, the legal basis does not exist. The draft law prepared by the military procurator's office contradicts both the Russian Constitution and the Russian law on religious freedom and religious organizations."
Gainutdin also complains that the military procurator's office consulted only the Russian Orthodox Church when drawing up the draft law.
"There was neither consultation nor agreement between the Defense Ministry and Muslim organizations. Agreement on this sort of cooperation exists only between the ministry and the Russian Orthodox Church."
No State Money for Imams?
The 1997 legislation permitting priests to serve on an informal basis in military units was intended to be extended to Russia's other so-called traditional faiths -- Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. But it never was. In theory, at least, the new draft law would allow imams, rabbis, and lamas the same rights as Orthodox priests.
But Muslims say things aren't that simple. State support for the Orthodox Church has allowed it to develop a nationwide infrastructure of seminaries and colleges to train priests for such work -- something Muslims cannot even dream of.
Ramin Sadykov is imam of the oldest mosque in Moscow.
"If we are to do this on a permanent basis -- so that we will always have priests in the military units -- then we will need a lot of money. The Russian Orthodox Church probably has the means but it would be a real problem for us Muslims to put an imam in each unit."
Archpriest Dmitry has a ready answer for that: if Muslims can't look after their own, Orthodox priests are ready to do the job for them.
"Russian priests serving in the army are prepared to put all the resources of their organizations -- both now when they're working on a voluntary basis, but also when this acquires state form -- at the disposal of the representatives of all traditional faiths in order to help this movement, because the powers of the Russian Orthodox Church are clearly greater than those of the other faiths."
That offer does not seem destined to impress the Council of Muftis.
The council's argument is that the legislation is swimming against the tide of history. Russia today is not what it was in Tsarist times. Then, the vast majority of soldiers serving in the armed forces were devout Orthodox Christians. Today, that is simply no longer the case. Russia is a multi-confessional society, in which nonbelievers, Muslims, and others may even outnumber Orthodox Christians.
It says the draft law risks fostering interreligious strife in the military -- a dangerous prospect when the Russian armed forces are already engaged in a war in Chechnya that is being fought, at least in part, on religious grounds.
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
READCONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)
LISTENListen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
Real Audio Windows Media
LISTENListen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
Real Audio Windows Media
THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.