Tuesday 29 June 1999

FROM ORTHODOX PRIEST TO MUSLIM (VIA THE STATE DUMA) by Aleksandr Shchipkov, Keston News Service Ethnic Russians rarely convert to Islam, except in 'Muslim' regions, such as Tatarstan and the Caucasus, as a result of mixed marriage. Although Keston has occasionally met ethnic Russian Muslims in Omsk, Tver and other places with a traditionally Russian speaking population, these are isolated cases which cannot as yet be interpreted as a trend. Thus the news that prominent Orthodox priest VYACHESLAV POLOSIN has converted to Islam has attracted everyone's attention. A Muscovite in his early forties, Polosin studied at the theological seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church and served as a parish priest before being elected deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR in 1990, where he headed the Committee on Freedom of Conscience. Together with his deputy colleagues Fr GLEB YAKUNIN and VIKTOR AKSYUCHITS he became a member of the Russian Christian Democratic movement, a party which lobbied for principles of Christian democracy in Russian politics. Since 1994 Polosin has worked as an advisor to the Russian State Duma Committee for the Affairs of Social and Religious Organisations. More recently he has developed an interest in Protestantism and founded a human rights organisation with a Protestant emphasis, the Council of Christian Organisations. Keston spoke to him in early June. Keston: Vyacheslav Sergeyevich, you have made the journey from Orthodox priest to ordinary Muslim. Has your relationship with God changed? Polosin: My relationship with God has not changed in any way, since I always believed in the one almighty God, the merciful Creator of the universe, and I believe in Him now. However, you should remember that there are various traditions surrounding this faith, and these are largely determined not by one's worldview, but by social interaction. I came to Orthodoxy under the atheist regime, not because I compared it with other religions, but simply because I did not know any other. I received the rudiments of faith then and am grateful to the Orthodox theological seminary which introduced me to theology. As for Islam, it is not a new religion, it is a continuation of the prophetic tradition, beginning with Abraham and the Israelite prophets, to which is added one more prophet from the Arab region, by blood also a descendent of Abraham. The Holy Koran is a book which sets as its goal the purification of monotheism from subsequent pagan layers, from man's worship not of God, but of something created: faith in omens, in shaman culture, in magic rituals, in amulets. It is the purification of monotheism. While working with primary sources of Christianity and religious sources from the first to the seventh centuries in general, I came to the conclusion that we need to rid ourselves of anthropomorphic ideas. This does not mean that I am suggesting that other people should follow my example: I am in no way propagandising. Each man has his own path, and if a man is satisfied with being a Christian or a Jew, then heaven forbid that he should turn away from his faith. Keston: Today we frequently hear and read about negative events taking place within the Russian Orthodox Church. Did you 'leave' for Islam so as not to be a part of what is happening in the ROC? Polosin: The negative events taking place within the Orthodox Church and instances of immoral behaviour by individual priests and bishops could undoubtedly drive believers away. Such instances can spark off a process leading to self-realisation: when a person seeks the truth and wants to follow God, but is compelled by the Church to do what his conscience tells him is sinful, then he is forced to change his position. But in and of itself, a critical attitude toward this or that church cannot in any way be a reason to profess the Koran as the last prophetic book. My approach to the Holy Koran was conditioned not by negative events in the Orthodox Church, but by inner experience.     Keston: Two years ago we had a private conversation in which we discussed at length the understanding of the divine trinity in various Christian and non-Christian traditions, the correlation of different interpretations of 'Father', 'Son' and 'Spirit' and their transferral to the plane of political mythology. This conversation gave me the impression that you had a marked sympathy with Protestantism. Even back then you mentioned certain parallels between Protestantism and Islam. What did you mean? Polosin: I think that intellectual Protestantism has given the world some remarkable scientific research, in particular Biblical criticism. Pastor Rudolph Bultman, for example, became the founder of the new scientific method of demythologisation, including demythologisation of the Bible. If we are talking about that kind of Protestantism, then it is very close to Islam. Protestantism appeared in opposition to those pagan layers which had built up in the Catholic Church: the cult of the saints, the cult of holy objects, the cult of ritual, faith that the ritual brings about some magic action. Both Catholic and Orthodox scholars write that grace is given without fail in the sacraments. Here it is not God who gives, but a physical substance, a slot machine: you put in your money and receive what you requested. Protestantism freed itself from this. The only difference between Protestantism and Islam is confined to Christology, that is, the interpretation of the person of Jesus Christ. Note that nowhere in the New Testament is Christ called God, only the Messiah, 'Mashiakh', or Saviour. But Moses and Noah are also called the Mashiakh, it is by no means a divine epithet. This also applies to the expression 'Son of God'. In the book of Job, one of the most ancient books of the Old Testament, 'Son of God' is a synonym for the word 'angel'. Both Jewish and Christian theology acknowledge this. Protestants who follow the text of the New Testament literally are very close to Islam. The apparent difference between them is not due to religious reasons, but to national traditions, formulated under the influence of folklore, geographical conditions and traditional morals. The Arab world has its own traditions and mentality. With Protestants, verbal prayer predominates in which everything is expressed, even everyday details, and God is a participant in a conversation of prayer. In eastern religions the contemplative element predominates in prayer, there is a certain immersion, during which a person says nothing but simply experiences, contemplates.This is a characteristic of all eastern religions. If the desire is there, and I hope that such a desire will arise between Protestant Christians and Muslims, perhaps we can achieve a very significant level of mutual understanding.   Keston: Is the appearance of Russian Islam possible in Russia? Polosin: If we are talking about Russian, or rather Russian-speaking Islam, then it is absolutely possible; after all, Christianity was born not in Russia, but as a Jewish sect. Its name and all its cult objects have Jewish roots, it was only later that they received Latin and Greek terminology. A good Russian translation of the Holy Koran and Islamic tradition would make Islam absolutely accessible to the Russian population, and there would be no repulsion or alienation. Keston: Were you required to perform any kind of rite to convert from Christianity to Islam? Polosin: No, to convert to Islam you need only to pronounce publicly the formula, 'There is no God but the one God, Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet', which I did in an interview with the magazine 'Musulmanye' ('Muslims') in May of this year. I am glad that I brought my social status into line with my convictions.(END)