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Russia's Tatarstan: Where 3 religions live in peace

There are few spots on earth these days where religions mingle without rancor, or worse. But the Russian republic of Tatarstan has turned religious tolerance into its post-Soviet brand - a place where Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics mix and respect each other's traditions.

For the outside world, the latest proof of Tatarstan's multifaceted religious identity came during an extraordinary appearance last month by the Muslim president of Tatarstan and a leading Russian Orthodox churchman at a conference in Jidda.

Just weeks before, the consecration of an important Catholic church in Kazan was celebrated as an example of the Volga River region's special harmony.

"Tatarstan has already become an example - not only in the Russian Federation - of tolerance and friendship between different religions and cultures," Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the Vatican's College of Cardinals, said in his invocation at the church, according to the Tatar-inform news agency.

In Jidda, the Tatarstan president, Mintimir Shaimiyev, who steered his republic past separatist sentiment in the 1990s toward broad autonomy within the Russian Federation, read a greeting from President Dmitri Medvedev that stressed: "Russia intends to stick firmly to its course to expand active interaction with the Islamic world."

The Reverend Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, spoke of Russia's deep ties to Islam.

"We are intermingled: Russia is inseparable from the Islamic world, as many millions of Muslims live there, and the Islamic world is inseparable from the Russian and Orthodox world, whose members live in so many Muslim countries," Chaplin told the forum, the Interfax news agency reported.

None of this surprises inhabitants of Kazan, a 1,000-year-old city in the heart of Russia, where Muslim minarets and Russian Orthodox onion domes rise in seemingly equal proportion.

The huge Kul-Sharif Mosque, which in symbolism and glitziness evokes a Muslim version of Moscow's vast, re-created Cathedral of Christ the Savior, was built within the city's UNESCO-listed, white-walled Kremlin to mark Kazan's millennium. It stands next to the 16th-century Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation and is meant to evoke a mosque destroyed by Ivan the Terrible when his forces sacked Kazan in 1552.

Although the sacking still rankles over 500 years later, Russian-Tatar relations are notable for equanimity. According to Russia's 2002 census, ethnic Tatars accounted for just over half of Tatarstan's population. The census does not record religious adherence, but various estimates place the number of Muslims in Russia at 14 to 23 million out of a population of about 140 million.

"This place is unique in the world," said Dmitry Khafizov, a historian and adviser to the city government who was instrumental in the return to Kazan by Pope John Paul II of a famous 18th-century copy of a revered icon. The original icon is attached to a firm belief that the Virgin Mary appeared in Kazan in 1579, and directed a 10-year-old girl toward the image.

Khafizov's evident pride in the Virgin legend was reflected by Reverend Sergei Titov of the Kazan diocese of the Orthodox church. "This is a multinational region," he said. "It is essential to live together and be tolerant enough of each other's values."

Muslims and Orthodox clergy are present at all official events and official buildings are blessed by both, said Titov.

The local bishop, Anastasy, is "able to have relations with Muslims and Catholics and the authorities," he said. "He is able to speak of his problems peacefully, with Christian love."

The post-Soviet era has fostered a resurgent Tatar identity, but has not resulted in religious fundamentalism. Young women in miniskirts and skinny jeans mingle in the streets of Kazan with veiled women, and far outnumber the latter.

Moscow, has, in turn, "played the 'Tatar card"' and used Tatarstan as "a kind of showcase of Russian Islam," writes Aleksey Malashenko, a Russian expert on Islam with the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent paper, "Russia and the Muslim World."

The peaceful mingling is not confined to officialdom. Earlier this year, foreign visitors searching outside Kazan for the Raifsky Mother of God Monastery, a spiritual center, were eagerly shown the way by a Tatar Muslim woman. In Soviet times too, said the woman, who gave her name only as Roza, she preferred Orthodox shrines to Soviet ones. Visiting Moscow back then, she said, she skipped Lenin's tomb to visit the Dormition Cathedral.

On a bench outside the monastery, Father Sergius, an 85-year-old monk, sat reading a book by Pope John Paul II - scarcely typical for Russian Orthodox churchmen, who often in the post-Soviet era have come to resent what they see as Roman Catholic proselytizing on Orthodox territory.

"This is a very interesting book," said the monk. "Pope John Paul says the right things."

Kazan's pre-revolutionary Catholic church was turned into a wind tunnel by a Soviet research institute. Kazan officials offered to help finance construction of the new church to serve the Catholic community of several hundred.

The August consecration was a duly official occasion, with local notables and Russian Orthodox and Muslim clerics joining Cardinal Sodano, and all exulting over the new home for the returned icon. The mayors of Czestochowa in Poland, Fatima in Portugal and Mariazell in Austria, towns in Europe famous for their shrines to the Virgin Mary, attended.

Russian Orthodox critics accused the Pope, who died in 2005, of using the icon to try to fulfill his unrealized dream of visiting Russia. The image is especially credited here with saving Russia in 1612 from invaders from Poland, the late Pope's native land.

Kazan appears free of Catholic-Orthodox frictions.

"We don't have any problems with the Orthodox in Kazan," the Reverend Diogenes Urquiza, an Argentine who has served the Catholic community in Kazan since 1995, said while the church was still under construction. "I know how it is in other cities and dioceses. To this day they can't develop any relations."

In Kazan, he said, there is even a joint church summer camp for Orthodox and Catholic children.

The Muslim-Orthodox rapprochement, meanwhile, seems fashioned as part of a larger Kremlin design to ease tensions with the Muslim world.

"Since Putin came to power, there has been an attempt to position Russia separately from Europe in its foreign relations," said Rafik Mukhametshin, rector of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan, referring to Vladimir Putin, now prime minister.

"The attitude to the West is not always positive," the rector said of the Orthodox church. "Here, I think to strengthen status, the Islamic factor is beneficial.

"That's why recently these kinds of thoughts have been expressed about Islam," he continued. "I don't think it's a strengthening of tolerance, of interfaith dialogue. I think there are other goals."

In Kazan, said Titov, the reality of daily coexistence tempers politics and extremism. "Moscow's thinking is ambitious," he said. "Here it's real life, an opportunity to live in peace."

Sophia Kishkovsky

International Herald Tribune, November 29, 2008.