Kirill Sultanov

The Russian Orthodox Church and Islam in Central Asia: An Example of Good-Neigbourliness

Before coming to the core of the issue, I would like to outline the aspects constituting the philosophical framework of this presentation. I mean that it is motivated rather by secular reasons than religious ones. I am trying to express not an "arbitral" or "objective" opinion, but that of Orthodox Christian believer. It implies several things: at first, I will not observe the rule of impartiality in my presentation—it will rather be partial in terms of the love to the Truth putting in it a certain dogmatic sense; at second, the opinion to be expressed thereafter is not on the behalf of the Russian Christian Orthodox Church, but private opinion of an ordinary parishioner. With these short introduction, I would like to apologize to the readers if my attempt into presenting the unique experience of the Orthodox Church in Uzbekistan would appear to be rhetoric and not quite adequate.

The history of relationship between Christianity and Islam in Central Asia can be divided into two big chapters naming those "Nestorian" and "Orthodox" respectively.

"The Nestorian chapter" begins with the invasion of the Arab troops led by ibn-Kuteiba in the early 8th century when Islam came to Central Asia, and ends with the route of the Nestorian church in the mid-14th century;

"The Orthodox chapter" also begins with the invasion of then Russian troops in Turkestan in the mid-19th century and lasts nowadays, highlighting relationship between Christians and Muslims in various changes of a historical paradigm. These changes:

1) Colonial regime of the tsarist Russia;

2) The Soviet power regime;

3) The present-day period related with the formation and development of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

It should be specified why we call the first chapter we talked of above a Nestorian one, not just Christian.

The dawn of Christianity in the land between the Oxus and Yaksart rivers dates back to the beginning of the Common Era, i. e. to the times of the Apostles. It is connected at the first place with the deeds of Thomas the Apostle who disseminated the Holy Gospel in the so-called "Indian countries", including the peoples called "the Bactrian, Girkan, and Parthian". These names mean the countries that lie to the easterner from the Roman Empire: Parthia and mainly the Kushan Kingdom that comprised the territory of the Maverannakhr, which shaped later that this kingdom existed.

The Holy Gospel also tells that Apostle Andrew traveled over the territories of present-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as well.

The gospel of these apostles appeared to have been very fruitful. Al-Beruni informed that in Merv a numerous community of the Melkits lived already in the 2nd century (the first Christians were called "Melkits" here.) In the Ephthalite state that defeated the Kushan Kingdom in the 4th century, Christianity acted as a state religion. Christianity had a great influence in some states that emerged after the Ephthalite state has gone from the world scene. These were the Turkic Kaganate and the Mongol Empire. A number of powerful metropolitanates existed here: the Merv, samarkand, Khorezm, Vinkerd (near Tashkent), Nevaket (old town near the Krasnaya Rechka village in Kirghizstan). The Nevaket metropolis covered the East Turkestan as well and stretched even to some areas in Siberia. The Nevaket metropolitan had the title "the Nevaket and Kashgar metropolitan".

Within the same period _ about 5th-6th centuries, the process of reformation of the Central Asian community has began and lasted until this community ceased to exist. To be accurate with dates, the events started with the dogmatic crisis in far Constantinople that has resulted in the withdrawal of empowerment of the patriarch Nestoris. His adherers resettled to Persia and organized own church. From Persia, this heresy infiltrated to Central Asia followed and continued to spread over the adjacent local metropolitanates. Al-Beruni indicated that in the 5th century some "Melkit Mitran" was the head of the Christian community in Merv (that is he was the Orthodox metroplitan), but he was replaced with a Nestorian metropolitan after several decades. During the 6th and 7th centuries, Nestorians who were most versed in ideological disputes predominated in all the Christian communities of Central Asia. Their polemic with "Melkits" was unlike disputes on the dogmatic question about Maria and her Son. Quite opposite, the essence of Nestorians criticism was all in the fact that Orthodox Church was determinately proclaimed a "backward", "stagnant", "stiffened in book" superstition. Historically, it was not the first criticism towards the Orthodox Church from the standpoint of the so-called "modernity", that is, from the standpoint of progress, culture, and civilization. (Authorship is here for the Mediterranean Gnosticism of the 2nd-4th centuries; the thesis of "progress" in its evolutionary or dialectic developments is always inherent feature of Gnosticism.) But in the words of the Nestorians, this criticism got a classical form that repeats also nowadays non-updated. However, as well as in the antique times, today we still hear the only possible answer from the Orthodox Church: Any revision _ and, even more, refusal of _ religious doctrine should be condemned as heresy. For they may not be judged with time and modernity _ they are beyond time and eternal.

Unfortunately, in real history finding out reasons and grounds is a rare case. It is easy to restore atypical dispute between a Nestorian and Melkit that could be in that century. The former reproach the latter: "You have lagged behind life". A Melkit answers: "You are heretic and sacrilege". And a Nestorian eloquently shrugs shoulders winning sympathy of the listeners. Certainly, here is used provocation and a flat-out playing with the main weakness of any audience _ to believe oneself the omphalos of "culture" and "civilization". Still, this is not the point. We believe that each party wins the award in the life which it eager for: some rips fruits in the modermiy as it was with Nestorians who won disputes with Melkits. And yet, it was Melkits who won historical future, letting alone eternal one. Such is the background of Christianity by the time the Arabian conquest. As to relationship with Islam, we believe it is important to emphasize that Christianity in Central Asia was about everywhere represented by the Nestorian heresy. Nestorians approached to the necessity for building relations with a new religion with the same eclectic and aggressive attitudes converting religious proselytism to the terms of an ordinary concrete political game. With such approach, one could not find a niche for genuine Christianity values. Everything, even the sermon of love and peace, converts to a means and the weapon of ideological struggle.

However, the first meetings with Muslims appeared to have beenpeaceful. Moreover, Nestorians welcomed the invasion of Arabs, deeming that it is favorable for them. Indeed, during the ongoing war in Mavrannakhar several Nestorian churches were transformed in mosques; however, there were no persecutions on the Christians, and Arabs relations with Nestorians could be called patronizing ones. There were some reasons of both historical and sacred type.

As to Zoroastrians and `pagans', conquerors practiced trying to converting Islam. However, the attitude towards the Christians was different, for according to the Holy Koran they were "the People of the Book". Arabs remembered that the companion of the prophet Muhammad and the first scribe of the Koran was the Nestorian monk _ Sergiy.

Speaking about it, we grieve of the deaths of many people, but we definitely protest against the aspiration some historians and even historical schools to seek the reason of that bloodshed outcome in some "aggression" which in their opinion is inherent in Islam as a religion. History proves the opposite thing: with the conditions of good neighbourhood offered by the Muslims, Nestorians themselves initiated their destruction. Yet, in our opinion, it happened not when they _ by political means _attempted on the souls Muslims or when they tried to obsess Melkits with their humanitarian demagogy. To be limited with solely a moral assessment means to give more room for historical-combinatory illusions very much in the spirit of Lev Gumilyov. An orthodox outlook to this is as strictly dogmatic and old as "Melkits' Answer": the fall began far in the Constantinople when the Third Universal Summon has rejected a theological rationalization advanced by Nestor who did not reconciled with the decision taken by the Church. Since then and ever, principal social virtues of Christianity _ reconciliation, patience, and obedience to the law _ are unbeknown to the disciples of "the uncrowned patriarch".

I have to repeat: It is important for us to give a comprehensive vision of the fall of Nestorians. Otherwise, we come across the risk to reduce re-consideration to ordinary shallow moralizing that has no tangible outcome, that is we will be unheard and misunderstood. We see, that the extremely moral and humanitarian views of events could conduct to conclusions _ and quite often do _ that religions for the sake of peace and calmness should "meet mid-way" and even "to renounce the principles" and put limits on themselves within territorial or ethnic units etc. These conclusions probably matter as for the current period, but from historical perspective this way leads directly to enmityand violence. It is impossible to be deceived some "believing in humans" for the sake of humans. If it goes about conflict, no moral loftiness can be the salvation. On the contrary, in the eyes of any hostility it becomes just another reason for justifying the destruction of humans.

The moral approach is not able to explain the true reason why Nestorians were destroyed, whereas the Orthodox survived and remained viable. Among Nestorians, we can see many perfect, pure, and courageous people, while among the Orthodox _ bad, vicious, or misled people, of course. And yet, the former perished, whereas the latter are alive to date. A kind of hard spiritual training is required not to run in pseudo-human nihilistic ways, such as skepticism, hedonism, or cynicism, when trying to explain this historical injustice.

Reprinted from

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