The Saratov Orthodox Church seeks to block Mormons. For the first time in its history, Saratov is becoming the arena for a serious religious conflict. The point of conflict is the plan of the local Mormon society to build a church complex in downtown Saratov. Acting through a private individual, the group has already leased a plot of land. The Mormon plan has attracted the ire of the leaders of the Saratov branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Volga. This church would be the third Mormon building in the region. The first is located in the remote Lenin raion and the second is in the city of Engels, a satellite city of Saratov, on the other side of the Volga. Additionally, the Mormons have an office in a local institute. Construction plans envision a church and a meeting room.

The first religious leader to denounce the plan was the bishop (episkop) of Saratov and the Volga, Longin. Longin, an extremely ambitious figure, was appointed as the head of the Saratov church last year and immediately became visibly active, changing the face of the local church and transforming its relations with the oblast and city authorities. While his predecessor Aleksandr had almost no contact with secular officials, Longin has already become one of the most visible figures in the region. Some sources even claim that he has consulted professional image makers, such as the Moscow-based Foundation for Effective Policy, to increase his standing in the region. He has expanded construction of new orthodox churches and made claim to a number of buildings that belonged to the Orthodox Church before the revolution.

On the Saratov church's web site, which appeared after Longin took over, there is a page actively fighting against totalitarian sects, which in this context includes a large number of mainstream religious groups though ones that are not traditionally found in Russia. The contents of this site have already led a number of individuals to protest to the governor, oblast procurator, human rights ombudsman, mayor, and the bishop himself accusing the Saratov church of "violating the existing stability in society." Longin has sent an open letter as Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov asking him to block the construction of the Mormon church. He claimed that the construction of such a house of worship close to an existing active Orthodox church would be an insult to Orthodox church members. Soon, the politically active leader of the Saratov Muslim community Imam Mukadas Bibarsov joined to support Longin. He likewise sent a letter to the governor and mayor noting that a mosque already stood near the planned site for the church. The imam also used political arguments to back up his case, noting that in his opinion an overwhelming majority of Muslims have negative views of the USA, the homeland of the Mormons. Nevertheless, he stressed that Muslims were tolerant of all religions.

Since the secular leaders did not react to these letters, Longin decided to take a step unprecedented for Saratov. With church backing, he held a demonstration to protest the construction which gathered over 3,000 participants. Slogans at the meeting called on the Mormons to leave Saratov and not to "corrupt pure souls." Orators, including Longin, called on residents of the region to be careful in their dealings with the Mormons and warned people about what were described as the Mormons' unusual religious practices. On 7 August, there was an analogous rally organized this time by the Volga Cossack force. Ataman Vladimir Morozov warned that the church would be built dangerously close to Saratov's administrative buildings and that it would attract Mormons from all over the country. So far the Mormons are planning to proceed with the construction. The local authorities have not reacted to the situation. Only a semi-official representative of the mayor's office said that the mayor could not limit the activity of any religious organization as long as it did not violate the law. Likewise, no one has taken any action against the Saratov Orthodox Church (RRR 8/31/04).

RH:  This is very odd.  Saratov is on the Volga. Why the Mormons are making a push there puzzles me.  I have seen no map of current Mormon establishments in Russia.  Is there a general Mormon missionary effort throughout Russia?  What doctrine do they teach?  In Latin America they have been welcomed because they help the poor in a way no other church does.  Is that true in Russia? Orthodox Russians are not pro-American and Russian Moslems hate the US, and by implication the Mormon Church.  However, freedom of religion is a key issue in US foreign policy. and if Putin is seen as supporting or condoning the persecution of Mormons, he risks losing American goodwill.

Islam in Astrakhan Oblast has developed under the special patronage of President Putin and former governor Anatolii Guzhvin, who passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago of natural causes On 26 April 2002, Putin visited Astrakhan and met with the mufti of the Astrakhan Regional Spiritual Administration of Muslims (RDUM), Nazymbek Ilyasov. In a short conversation with the president, the mufti stressed the need for the state to support Russian Muslims. According to Ilyaskov, Putin said that the authorities intended to support adherents of Islam in all aspects of life. Putin apparently offered to help in spreading the religion. Ilyasov had previously met with Putin in Moscow to discuss religious issues. Until the end of the 1980s, the religious societies of the four mosques in Astrakhan were organizationally independent. New management structures began to appear around 1990 and in 1991-92 the RDUM was formed. Since that time, Ilyasov has been the oblast's mufti. Additionally, he was elected deputy to the supreme mufti, the chairman of the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia and the European countries of the CIS. Talgat Tadzhuddin is the head of this organization, which is based in Ufa.

Today in Astrakhan, there are 39 Muslim spiritual societies and 11 groups. Muslims pray in 32 mosques (7 of which are designated as historical monuments) and 6 houses of prayer. During recent years, with the support of regional and local governments and their own resources, the Muslim associations have built or refurbished 16 cultural buildings. Six mosques dating from before the 1917 revolution have been restored and returned to the believers or are in the process of being restored. Additionally, there are two new Islamic centers, built on the base of the region's largest mosques, and the new Islamic Institute graduated its first class in July 2003. The rector of the institute is Mukhammed Val Abdat, a native of Algeria who later studied in Astrakhan. There are 2-3 independent Islamic foundations which support and propagate the cultural values of Islam and organize the hajj to Mecca and Medina each year.

So far, 2004 has marked new initiatives in the oblast authorities' support of Islam. On 21 June Guzhvin held a meeting to discuss the restoration of two Astrakhan mosques - the White and the Black. Business representatives were present at the meeting and they were encouraged to help finance the reconstruction work. Work on the White Mosque began in 2001 and since that time only 3 million rubles of the necessary 15 million have been raised. When apprised of the situation, Guzhvin set aside 0.5 million rubles from the oblast budget. At his suggestion, business people began to contribute as well. Mirgadzhi Guseinov's construction firm Stroiservice-L, Viktor Vinokurov, head of the firm Kasryba, Lukoil Shelf Ltd, and others agreed to contribute 100,000 rubles each, bringing the total amount of money raised at the meeting to 1.7 million rubles. Leader of the Dagestani diaspora in Astrakhan, State Duma member Alikber Pashaev, agreed to cover the 12 million ruble bill for restoring the Black Mosque personally (Volga, an independent Astrakhan newspaper(6/23/04). (RRR 8/31/04).

RH: This is extremely important. Putin is supporting Islam in Russia to discourage it from supporting the Chechen rebels. Astrakhan is at the mouth of the Volga, on the  Caspian Sea.  Ufa, to the northeast of Astrakhan and just west of the Urals, is now the administrative center of Islam in Russia.  Has any WAISer ever been to Ufa?

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced that he had given orders to the Coast Guard that all vessels entering the port of Sukhum without previous authorization would be fired at and sunk, Georgian and Russian news
agencies reported.  The Georgian Coast Guard opened fire on a Turkish vessel trying to enter the port en route to breakaway Abkhazia, resulting in an immediate suspension of peace negotiations between Georgian and Abkhazia. The threat was directed specifically towards Russian vessels carrying Russian tourists to Abkhazia. Saakashvili told reporters that Russian tourists would henceforth be considered undesired guests in Abkhazia. “The territory where Georgian blood was shed, and where Georgians’ heads were used to play football with is not the right place for so-called Russian tourists" (ISN 8/4/04).