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After the Murder – Discussing the Church’s Mission

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After the Murder – Discussing the Church’s Mission

28.11.2009

The murder of Moscow priest Daniel Sysoev will continue to be discussed for quite some time. It is really one of the most notorious crimes in recent years, even without taking into account the rather impressive and unfortunate list of prominent assassinations. The reason is not only the provocative nature of the murder taking place in a church but the obvious religious motivation as well. Despite the fact that priests and monks have been killed on more than one occasion over the past two decades, for the most part these killings were purely criminal in nature. Only a few of them could be classified as “hate crimes” committed by mentally incompetent individuals. The murder of Father Daniel is completely different. The problem concerns not only opponents of Orthodoxy both supporters of totalitarian sects and radical Muslims but it also concerns the frightening insecurity of life and the powerlessness of law enforcement in general.

All the official commentary has already been made, so it seems, by the Russian Orthodox Church, representatives of Russia’s Muslims, the country’s leaders and the investigators. Patriarch Kirill has urged that we not rush to issue guilty verdicts, and the Council of Muftis of Russia has asked that the murder of the priest not be linked with Muslims. The heads of the Caucasian republics hastened to express their condolences, and the president said the crime was “very serious.” The investigating committee, for its part, promised to employ all its top resources in the investigation.

Thus far there is no ultimate clarity as to who was behind the crime. Different versions have been put forward. According to one of them, the murder of the famous Moscow missionary was the responsibility of someone from a Slavic neopagan sect, although the most convincing theory shows Islamist involvement in the crime. In favor of the latter theory are not only the long stream of threats against Father Daniel, but also the witnesses’ statements about the “Caucasian” accent of the killers and the character of the priest, a man who devoted himself to the recent debate on Islam and to preaching Orthodoxy among Muslims. We should stress, however, that at this point this is just one possible scenario. 

There is little doubt now that the killing was an act of revenge for the missionary work conducted by Father Daniel. Since the mid-1990s, he had been engaged in the rehabilitation of people affected by the activities of sects. The secretary of the Shestodnev missionary and educational center, he recently devoted himself to the debate with Islam. He participated in religious debates and organized a missionary school at the Church of the Holy Apostle Thomas where he served – perhaps the only one of its kind in Russia – which succeeded in producing more than a hundred missionaries. He advocated preaching to migrant workers and to Muslims in general.

In his speech at the tomb of the priest, Patriarch Kirill called for his work – the preaching of Christianity – to be continued. He recalled the words of Tertullian: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Meanwhile, despite the validity of the patriarch’s call, far from everyone in the Christian community shares the missionary engagement of Father Daniel, a man who caused a wave of indignation among Russian Muslims with his book “Marriage to a Muslim.”

In 2007, the Concept of the Missionary Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church was adopted. If we use the terminology of this fundamental document, the service of Father Daniel was quite consistent with how the church’s external mission is presented, one which calls for work among migrants. One may wonder, though, whether it was a mission of reconciliation.

The complexity of the answer to this question lies in the fact that it is often virtually impossible to determine where missionary work ends and where proselytizing begins. According to Father Daniel, the missionaries organized, for example, watches at “national” cafes and eateries. Is this missionary work or does it already have elements of proselytism? And work with migrant workers who have arrived from countries that are formally secular but still have very definite – and ancient – religious traditions? Providing a definitive answer to these questions is difficult, but in any case, the forms that a sermon can take is a topic for discussion as an internal church matter, as a public issue, and even, if you will, as one for coordination with Muslim leaders. There is nothing offensive to the Orthodox Church in this approach, and therefore it would have been easy to define the basic rules of the game. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church rejects proselytism as a form of missionary work. It would hardly be wrong to say that the main objective of a mission is Christian education rather than conversion, which, if we use a bit of formal terminology, should be a voluntary choice for a sufficiently informed person.

The intense activity of Father Daniel was, of course, an outburst by a sincere believer and a devout church man. A certain Christian romanticism grew out of his differences with Islam. However, the institution of the debate is a very delicate form of interaction with representatives of other religious traditions, one which involves a range of internal rules and restrictions. Even in medieval treatises, in which the Christian theologian always defeated his opponents, be they Muslims, Jews or anyone else, debates were usually conducted in the correct form. In modern conditions the requirements for correctness – not political correctness but rather ordinary human courtesy – have become even more stringent. It cannot be otherwise. This is particularly important in the difficult situation that Russia finds itself in with its generally high religious and quasi-religious activity of the masses and the simultaneous resurgence of two traditional religions – Christianity and Islam. While Russia has enjoyed a long tradition of peaceful coexistence, we must now admit that a new situation has arisen which does not fit into the old scheme. There is neither a clearly defined geographical, social nor even an ethnic niche when it comes to a particular confession. The boundary line between them is relatively fragile in the presence of overlapping areas, and too much fervor in preaching can do a very bad service at a time when long-term relationships are only being laid.

In any case, missionary work in our modern environment of extreme intolerance is not easy and is extremely delicate. The preacher does not deal with “official” Islam but rather with “grassroots” Muslim sects and different kinds of radical “brotherhood” associations, as well as with the diverse views and habits of ordinary Muslims. This was evidenced by Father Daniel himself, who said that those Muslims who converted to Orthodoxy were forced to hide this fact from their relatives who would likely have been unable to reconcile themselves to such a metamorphosis. And if this is the “everyday” world of Islam that we need to consider, then the question of the correct form of missionary work is of paramount importance. What we are talking about is the effectiveness of work, if you will – a kind of Christian pragmatism.

The state can and should take on the role of a moderator or regulator of missionary activity. However, even the introduction of articles to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations that are devoted to missionary work (a draft bill is currently being discussed by experts) is unlikely to be sufficient. In order to avoid tragedies like what happened with Father Daniel Sysoev there needs to be a consistent religious policy that is implemented in practice. Legislative regulation should become an additional mechanism that would smooth any rough edges in relations between different religions. The main role in this process, however, should still belong to the church, which has much more effective levers at its disposal, including the establishment of its own school of missionary work, internal church discipline, and many others.

In a number of his actions and statements, Patriarch Kirill has made it clear that he views missionary work as one of the most important areas of church policy. This is also an issue of developing new strategies. The adoption of the Concept of the Missionary Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church testifies to the fact that the church is clearly aware of the main purpose and form of the mission. Starting a systematic and large-scale implementation of an already adopted program in practice and the establishment of relevant institutions is only a small part of this work. Father Daniel Sysoev was one of the pioneers in this field, and his death once again confirms how great and how difficult the task of church missionary work is in the modern world, comparable, perhaps, only to the task which stood before the ancient church as it faced a vast pagan world.

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