Open Letter from the Slavic Center for Law & Justice
and the Institute of Religion & Law to the Minister of Defense
about the Introduction of the Institution of Military Clergy in Russia

In July 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Defense Ministry to revive the institution of military clergy within Russia. It was stated that, in the initial phase of this program, representatives of the clergy would appear in military units that are serving abroad. During the second phase (beginning as of January 1, 2010), clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) would be appointed to serve in all Russian military units right down to the squadron. This program foresees the involvement of a total of 200-250 priests. As of December 1, 2009, a new post was created in the Russian armed forces - Assistant Commander of the Military Unit for Working with Faithful Soldiers. In early February 2010, the authorities also approved a Statute on the Functional Responsibilities of the Assistant Commander of the Military Unit for Working with Faithful Soldiers in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

It is obvious that the institution of military clergy is needed. This is evidenced by the international experience of democratic countries that have managed to implement a chaplain service in practice, thereby maintaining the unity of military contingents and inter-religious accord. In the United States Army alone, there are 3 thousand chaplains of various religious denominations, and every soldier can freely request their superiors for the opportunity to have their spiritual needs met - even if there are only a few soldiers of the Orthodox Christian faith, then an Orthodox priest will be invited to serve their religious needs. In Germany, as well, there exists a system of agreements which the State enters into with the Catholic and evangelical churches with respect to providing spiritual guidance for the military. There are currently more than 90 military clergy employed by the Bundeswehr. The State undertakes to provide them with financial support and a social benefits package. In Russia, prior to the revolution, there were 3700 regimental priests and 100 imams serving in the Russian military. Apart from these clergy, at the request of soldiers and officers, the military also arranged the services of a Lutheran pastor or Catholic priest for them.

Russia's military is more religiously diverse than ever in the country’s history. The Russian Federation’s armed forces includes not only representatives of the country’s "traditional religions," but also adherents to other religions and denominations, including atheists and agnostics. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, today, two-thirds of the country's soldiers consider themselves to be believers. Among these, 83% are Orthodox Christians, 8% are Muslims, and the remaining 9% adhere to other religions or denominations. Despite the fact that the majority of military servicemen identify themselves as Orthodox Christians (many doing so as a formality), society will also judge the effectiveness of the clergy within the scope of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, namely with respect to the way it does or does not take into account the interests of religious minorities and non-believers.

The current practice involving the hasty and ill-considered introduction of the institution of military clergy is fraught with conflict and destabilization of the unified organism of this country’s armed forces.

In first order, measures taken towards implementing the institution of military clergy have begun to take place through bypassing the legislation of the Russian Federation. At the outset, is should have first been necessary to prepare a legal framework, identify the range of rights and obligations of clergymen, their specific sphere of responsibility and competence. Otherwise, instead of spiritual work, the priests involved will end up performing the role of ideological educators and commanders.

Secondly, based on recent statements made by representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and top officials of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation, the introduction of the institution of military clergy actually runs contrary to the constitutional principle of equality of all religions before the law (Article 28 of the Constitution). The assumption then follows that the head of Russia’s military clergy will be assumed by an Orthodox priest, while it is apparent that, in some regions of Russia, the military units will also involve servicemen who are Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. President Medvedev has offered to discuss the possible situation whereby clergymen may be invited to a military unit if at least 10% of the believers therein adhere to one or another religious denomination. But that proposal gives way to the possibility that, if it turns out that faithful Catholics of Muslims constitute just 8 or 9% of all believers, then their religious rights will be infringed upon.

The Survey on the Religious Situation in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (authored by the Ministry of Defense itself) is laden with errors and insulting remarks against those religious associations that do not belong to the announced four "traditional" religions. Thus, it points to data to the effect that, in the Far East Military District, Orthodox Christian organizations account for 39% of the total number of registered religious groups, while Protestants account for 49%. It also emphasizes that the Protestants "preach pacifism and a negative attitude toward military service," while the situation is actually just the opposite. The vast majority of Protestants – whether they be Baptists, Evangelicals or Pentecostals (Christians of Evangelical Faith) - always adhere to compulsory military service, encourage patriotism and one’s need to serve this country – in this case, Russia. At the same time, there are currently about 100,000 draft dodgers “in hiding” from mandatory military service, among whom there are virtually no Protestants. The Survey also uses such purely religious and legally incorrect terms such as the "canonical territory" of the Russian Orthodox Church, upon which it appears to justify the exclusive need for the care of only Orthodox clergy in its military units. Moreover, the authors of this “Survey” very early impose the label of "enemies," indicating that "there is notable activity on the part of pseudo-Christian religious groups of the Pentecostal persuasion" who "are trying to gain the confidence of officials and secure the opportunity to carry out their work in the military" and that they "resort to outright fraud and bribery under the guise of "humanitarian aid."

The materials produced by the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation directly contradict each other with respect to the military and religious issues, which confirm the rights and recognize value only of Orthodox Christianity and the other formally-recognized "traditional" religions of Russia. Meanwhile, in the Survey on the Religious Situation in the Armed Forces in the Volga-Urals District, which provides statistical data on the religious affiliation of military personnel, the authors indicate that 50% are Muslim, 40% are Orthodox, and 10% are Protestants, which the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation has already identified as "enemies of the people," according to materials it has published.

You must not let the introduction of a chaplain service be used to foster some kind of ideological institution. You must not allow the occurrence of discrimination against a soldier, poking fingers at him because he is a Muslim or a Catholic or a Baptist, as they are also willingly serving in the army. It is necessary to take everyone’s interests into account in this regard.

We propose the establishment of a Coordinating Council under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense. Such a Council should include not only representatives of various religions and denominations represented in Russia, but also include societal actors and human rights activists. By inviting only a select few elected representatives of the country’s "traditional" religions to meetings of such a nature is indeed bad practice, which is unacceptable in a multi-religious society such as Russia.

In Russia today, there is an estimated total of 2000 Orthodox priests working in military units. Apart from these priests, Muslim clergy are also working in many regions of Russia. In dozens of regions of Russia, Protestant ministers also informally provide services and guidance to servicemen, as representatives of the second largest Christian denomination in Russia after Orthodox Christianity.

The army is a state institution, in which conflicts of a religious nature and religious “hazing” is unacceptable.  We are hopeful that the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation will continue to base its actions in introducing the institution of military clergy in strict accordance with the provisions set forth in the Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom of conscience and religious tolerance.

Slavic Center for Law and Justice
Institute of Religion and Law

Slavic Center for Law and Justice
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