RUSSIA - SPECIAL REPORT: Mixed Fortunes for Tatar Protestants.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 10 June 2002

Tatars commonly see themselves as being "ethnically Muslim", Rafik Mukhametshin, a specialist in Islamic studies at the Tatar Encyclopaedia Institute, explained to Keston News Service on 29 May, and are thus "not in raptures" about Protestant mission work among them. Various church representatives with whom Keston spoke recently in Tatarstan's capital Kazan (800 kilometres or 500 miles east of Moscow) pointed to harassment and obstruction encountered by Tatar Protestants from both their "ethnically Muslim" compatriots and the republican authorities. However, they also referred to possibilities to teach and preach which contrast markedly with Keston's experience in some of the predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Church planter and ethnic Tatar Takhir Talipov told Keston on 26 May that, whereas old-style Protestant churches had not been geared towards Tatars, there were now several Kazan churches trying to minister particularly to them. He estimated that there were now some 300 Tatar Protestants spread throughout Tatarstan as a result. While he maintained that these Protestants currently experienced no problems from the republican authorities, Talipov was sure that if mission work was conducted more actively there would definitely be problems from Tatar Muslims. "At the moment we are being very cautious, perhaps too cautious," he remarked. "Jesus said, 'As they persecuted me, so they will persecute you,' so if we aren't being persecuted, there's something we can't be doing right." Talipov said that he had encountered obstruction, however, when he tried to plant a church in one Tatar city. "First there was animosity in the press, then pressure was put on the administration, and then the administration started to persecute." He also referred to a case when officers of the OMON special police force had intimidated Tatars in another city after he had brought Bibles to them at their request, leaving them terrified. According to the lawyer to the charismatic Cornerstone Church, Anatoli Pagasi, Tatar Protestants face difficulties if they work in the Tatar language. On 27 May he related to Keston how the pastor of one small Tatar Pentecostal church, "Kotkaryuchy" ("Saviour" in Tatar), bought a dacha (country-style house) and began worship meetings there. The dacha turned out to be next door to a larger one belonging to a Tatar policeman, Pagasi reported, and the church had "evidently aroused his Muslim zeal" since Kotkaryuchy Church soon had to deal with complaints and searches from all kinds of municipal departments, while its registration application was stalled. Even though Tatarstan's public prosecutor later stated that registration should proceed since there was nothing wrong, he said, the Tatar policeman continues to monitor the church closely. Pagasi stressed, however, that this situation was "on the level of purely personal motivation and nothing to do with state policy". Takhir Talipov told Keston that whereas "train carriage loads" of Christian literature had appeared in Russian shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, "when we started to evangelise the Islamic world - including Tatarstan - we didn't have any." One sign of an apparently open attitude in this regard is the publication in Kazan last year in Tatar of 25,000 copies of the New Testament ("Inzhil") in co-operation with the Stockholm-based Institute for Bible Translation. A major role in the production of "Inzhil" was played by Tatar Protestants Igor and Fenuze Gyimayev. On 27 May Igor Gyimayev told Keston that the Tatar authorities had even welcomed the publication, since the chairman of Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs, Renat Nabiyev, attended the official presentation on 22 October 2001 along with representatives of the office of Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev. Philologists from Tatarstan's state higher education institutes had assisted in the translation, added Igor, while the Tatar Translation Committee which co-ordinated the project included the head of Kazan's Orthodox seminary, Fr Roman Modin, who is half Tatar. Showing Keston a photograph of Archbishop Anastasi (Metkin) of Kazan and Tatarstan at the presentation, Igor commented that no Muslim representative had attended. Rafik Mukhametshin, however, told Keston that the Muslims had so far been silent about the project. In addition to being chairman of the Tatar Translation Committee, Igor runs a correspondence school called "Iman" ("Faith" in Arabic) via which approximately 650 Tatar Muslims are studying the Bible. Founded two and a half years ago, Igor told Keston that the Tatar Muslim community had reacted to it "calmly". However, he added that when he had initially advertised "Iman" in Tatar newspapers, the advertisements were withdrawn at the demand of Muslim clergy: "They told the editors that a Christian advert should not appear in a Tatar newspaper." Interviewed by Keston on 28 May in his office in Kazan's Kremlin walls, where a copy of "Inzhil" was on prominent display, Renat Nabiyev could say no more about Kotkaryuchy Church than that it was registered. In general, he maintained, Muslims had an "okay" attitude towards Protestant mission, "but of course they don't welcome proselytism among them." Ildus Faiz, who heads the Propaganda and Youth Work department at the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan, told Keston on 29 May that he did not consider the threat of Protestant mission to be particularly great. In his native Tetyushi region of Tatarstan, he said, he knew of only some two or three families who had converted to Protestantism, which he described as "no religion, pure show". However, he also pointed to the popularity of correspondence courses in Tatarstan, ("Tatars prefer private study"), which could account for the popularity of Igor Gyimayev's correspondence school. Other Protestant initiatives which are successful among Tatars may rely on their being similarly unobtrusive.

One Tatar Protestant strongly criticised attempts by some churches to attract Tatars while prominently displaying Christian symbolism. "A real Tatar will never come under a cross," he told Keston. "The Russians occupied us with the cross in 1552." (END)