Dialogue About the Dialogue in a Monastery Setting

The entire Valdai Discussion Club moved Tuesday to the newly restored Valdai Monastery, which provided a historical setting to discuss inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue. In the morning session, official representatives of Russia’s leading religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism offered their perspectives.

The entire Valdai Discussion Club moved Tuesday to the newly restored Valdai Monastery, which provided a historical setting to discuss inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue. In the morning session, official representatives of Russia’s leading religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism offered their perspectives, while in the afternoon the experts took the podium to exchange opinions on the subject that’s as evasive as it is vital in the globalized world.

Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of external church relations Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev offered a historical overview of inter-religious relations in the Russian Empire, stressing that it never tried to assimilate its minorities thus leading to Russia’s ethnic and religious diversity. Today, he said, the basis for dialogue among the traditional religions in Russia is their common opposition to “extremism and terrorism” as well as to the “moral relativism” of the “post-Christian” Western civilization – a notion, with which the Russian Orthodox Church’s chief external affairs officer, who is also known as a theologian and composer, took an issue.

“It turns out that sometimes it is easier for us to find common language with the representatives of Islam and Judaism than with the representatives of liberal Protestantism, although we have common Holy Scriptures with them,” – said the metropolitan. However, it is not true of “religious extremists”, whose goal is to exterminate the “unfaithful, first of all Christians,” he said, highlighting the mass persecution of Christians by Islamists in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and other countries.

“All of it requires a different kind of efforts (than before) and a higher level of interreligious dialogue,” – he said. Instead of signing meaningless declarations that would satisfy everybody, it is important to have an honest conversation and tackle critical issues.

Responding to a question by writer Alexander Prokhanov, who describes himself as a proponent of a “Red Empire”, about his highly critical stance on Russia’s Communist past, Metropolitan Hilarion stressed that forgetting the crimes of Communism is not a recipe for overcoming the divides in the post-Communist Russian society. He cited an example of the agreement that the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Poland signed last year, offering forgiveness and not forgetting as a way forward.

Rabbi Aron Gurevich said that Islamists are trying to turn Russia into a “battlefield” – something religious leaders are trying to prevent.

Although the officials praised the work of the Interreligious Council of Russia, one moment of hot debate between representatives of Islam and Christianity in the context of migration, which was also an important topic on Tuesday, came when the deputy head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of European Russia, Mufti Damir Mukhetdinov took an issue with the widespread opposition to the Caucasus people dancing Lezginka, which is perceived as a militant ritual, in the center of Moscow. “Why dancing Lezginka in Moscow of 2000-2012 is a violation of Russian traditions, while dancing Lezginka by victorious Russian soldiers from the Caucasus in Berlin in 1945 was fine?” the mufti asked, highlighting the increased sensitivity in Russia’s big cities to Muslim immigrants. Later on Vladimir Legoida, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synod Information Department, said that “occupied Berlin” and the capital of one’s own country should not be compared. Addressing the seeming deadlock in the discussion of Islam and extremism, Legoida said that a distinction should be made between religious motivation and faith. He also said that coexistence of different identities requires a cultural dialogue and should not be framed in legalities.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for the Relations Between the Church and Society, said that religious societies “can offer the world a new vector of development” which runs contrary to greed and consumerism seen as the main drivers of globalization. He too stressed the need for honesty in the dialogue. “While remaining different, we should respect each other,” he said.

In the afternoon, prominent intellectuals, who are club members, took the podium. Prominent Polish film director and consultant of the Pontifical Council for Cultrue in the Vatican, Krzystof Zanussi questioned whether the dialogue is motivated by fear or a true curiosity and took issue with “stability” as a common objective. He said that one should not shy away from the notion of competition between cultures and religions. “There is a constant struggle that is under way between various religions and civilizations, and it is important that it is taking place at the level of the Olympic games and not at the level of barbarity,” he said.

Professor Tarek Heggy, a liberal political thinker from Egypt, described Egyptian identity as an “onion” of layers representing ancient Egypt, Christian Egypt, Arab Egypt and Muslim Egypt. He also criticized the policies of the Muslim Brothers government in Egypt, which tried to impose a solely Muslim identity of the multicultural Egypt.

The International Herald Tribune opinion page editor Serge Schmemann described his own complex identity of a Russian émigré and suggested that a search for one’s identity could be an integral part of the Russian identity as such.

The executive editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate Sergei Chapnin cited poet Osip Mandelstam as saying that abstract notions “smell fishy at the end of a historical era.” He emphasized that only personal witness of faith can be a persuasive instrument of dialogue in a situation when a “professional” language of interreligious dialogue sounds futile. He also stressed that it is politicization of any religion, be it Islam or Orthodox Christianity, turning religion into a political ideology that makes dialogue impossible. He also said at the end of the discussion that he regretted that the issue of “responsible dialogue” was not discussed on Wednesday. “Perhaps, the religions communities are not yet ready for the responsible dialogue.” 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.