ROAR: “The best of the best” to serve as chaplains in Russian army

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
Russia will be restoring military priesthood in 2010. The four main faiths will be able to have their chaplains in the armed forces.

In July 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev supported the initiative of the country’s Orthodox and other religious leaders to restore the institute of military chaplains. Russian armed forces will have about 250 chaplains by the end of 2010.

The first 13 chaplains were already installed at the end of last year in military units of the North Caucasus military district and bases situated in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In the second stage, about 250 military chaplains will be deployed in military bases over the course of the whole year. The chaplains will serve in military units and military schools around the country and represent Russia’s four main faiths: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

Currently, a central office of army chaplains is being created at the Ministry of Defense. It will be headed by an Orthodox priest and supported by a coordination committee involving representatives of traditional religions.

Military priesthood existed in Russia from the 18th century up until the 1917 revolution. In 1918, about 3700 priests and 100 imams were dismissed from the armed forces.

Now, chaplains will serve on staff in the army as deputy commanders of military units responsible for pedagogical work. They will be paid from the budget of the Ministry of Defense. However, about 400 priests already work with military units on a voluntary basis.

The Russian Orthodox Church was working on widening its presence in education and military institutions during the last year. It has selected 30 priests to serve in the armed forces. According to archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, there are special requirements such as their state of health, and their level of intellectual and cultural development. “They should be the best of the best,” he was quoted by the media as saying.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has expressed hope that “this important step will yield good results in the near future.”

Two thirds of Russia’s servicemen consider themselves religious, the Defense Ministry said. Some 83% of them are Orthodox, about 8% are Muslims, and 9% represent other faiths.

“Discussions about the introduction of the institute of the military chaplains have been conducted for a long time,” Vedomosti daily reported. “In 2006, the Office of Military Prosecutor proposed the priesthood to fight hazing in the army,” the paper said.

Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church sees their aim in spiritual work with Orthodox servicemen, the paper said. For this, it is enough to make it possible for servicemen to attend church or meet a priest, the daily said.

“Chaplains on staff are needed probably only in those military units that wage combat operations or are based abroad,” the paper said. Even then “it will be difficult to take into account interests of all faiths,” it added.

However, other faiths are also ready to work in the armed forces. Representative of Supreme mufti in Moscow Rastam Valeev thinks there will be at first many more Orthodox priests in the army, but he does not think “it is a big problem,” Rossiyakaya Gazeta daily said.

The institute of military chaplains exists in all great military powers except Russia, China and North Korea. Priesthood is represented in the armies of all NATO countries.

“The Western powers, atheistic by nature, encourage and even pay for the presence of priests in their armies,” Vesti TV channel said. “Despite all democratic freedoms, almost all the armies of old Europe have exclusively Christian chaplains, Protestants or Catholics,” it added. “In Muslim countries, the chaplains are mullahs, and in Israel they are only rabbis.”

“In Russia, the question of the need for cooperation between the church and the armed forces has been discussing for more than 10 years, and so far there is no single opinion,” the channel said. “It is particularly strange because traditions of regimental priests lasted for centuries.”

Now the institute of military chaplains “has to be restored from scratch,” Vesti said, adding that “for almost a century the Russian Orthodox Church has been separated from the army.”

Meanwhile, with the participation of servicemen 83 churches have been built in military units and schools over recent years, the channel said.

As chaplains start their work in the army on an experimental basis, the Russian parliament is preparing a special law on the priesthood in the armed forces, Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily said.

The Public Chamber also discussed the issue in December. Aleksandr Kanshin, a chamber member, said that “measures taken by the country’s leadership to modernize the army also concern its spiritual revival.”

Sergey Borisov, RT