Military chaplains: You're in the army now?

07/ 04/ 2006

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin.) - Dedovshchina,
or hazing - a sinister kind of barracks justice so notorious in the Russian
army that it barely needs translation.

It has gone beyond national boundaries: PACE vowed to take it on at one of
its upcoming sessions. No surprise the military is turning to God for help.

Exactly what kind of valuable European advice Russians could hope for is
still unclear, but the problem is already being addressed nationally on a
broad basis. The recent All-Army Officers' Conference involved nearly 300
platoon and company commanders, officers who work on the ground.

Unsurprisingly - what else would you expect from the military? - initiatives
are mostly ranging from re-establishing military detention centers, a
practice scrapped in 2002 as non-compliant with federal human rights laws,
to setting up a network of special disciplinary courts. One suggestion
deserves a closer look, though. The introduction of military chaplains.

The chaplains bill, drafted by the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office, has
reportedly been sent to the Defense Ministry and is expected to be forwarded
to parliament soon. Prosecutors hope chaplains will "improve morale and
streamline personnel building," a transparent euphemism for combat
dedovshchina.

If the bill becomes law, chaplains will serve on the same terms as
professional servicemen. This will add little to the financial burden,
advocates of the bill argue. They say the 2,000 priests who already preach
in military units without any pay whatsoever do a great deal to reduce
barracks violence - at least, compared to units that do not have priests at
all. Critics question the latter claim, although the issue on whether the
move will yield results is minor compared to whether it will be appropriate
to let clerics in at all.

Religious leaders as well as military experts are even more strongly divided
on the issue. Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II recently said priests should care
more about spiritual matters than discipline and warned against expecting
chaplains to do what in other armies is done by military police. Shafig
Pshikhachev, spokesman for the North Caucasus Muslim Coordination Center,
said at a recent round table on cooperation between the military and
religious organizations that the armed forces could use priests, but priests
should not be part of the common chain of command. He said their proposed
inclusion in the official ranks would be a broad violation of the
Constitution, which stipulates the separation of church and state.

But clerics' concerns are playing into the hands of Chief of Staff Yury
Baluevsky, who has made it clear that personnel are free to worship whatever
they want, but only after hours and without any official religious
representation. He said future chaplains' status should be determined first.
If they are not to be in the military, he said, they will, according to
military regulations, not be responsible for their actions.

One good foreign example of military-to-cleric cooperation is Lithuania.
There, there is a priest in each division with the rank of commissioned
officer, who is appointed on the recommendation of the chief Lithuanian
cleric. Each day on a military base there begins with prayer. Though there
is no religious interference with routine military activities, people and
their families feel free to come to the priest for confession, a blessing or
advice. Little is said on how confession fits in with military discipline
but, in any case, the chaplain certainly has the commander's ear where
morale and personnel building are concerned.

In Russia, things are different. There are religious buildings and services
- Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist - in many garrisons across the
nation and service members are not barred from visiting them and
worshipping.

There was even a chapel in Pristina, at the airport where Russian KFOR
peacekeepers were deployed. The Orthodox priest there communicated with
people, heard confessions and even married young couples - all in a small
canvas tent off the runway. Not that he had official status or official
permission to do so.

This example, vivid if somewhat exceptional, applies to all the Russian
armed forces: there are priests and they do what priests are supposed to,
but what they do is not, officially, being done. This is partly because of
the constitutional separation of church and state. But another no less
important reason is that most commanders trained in an environment that has
changed little since Communist times are atheistic or against the idea of
including clerics in the decision-making process.

While there is no argument about the need to deal with servicemen's
religious beliefs, a perfect description of the current debate just how to
go about doing it probably lies between "divide" and "confusion". Time will
tell whether military personnel will accept what lawmakers decide.