Patriarch Kirill: Tatarstan a model of peace, harmony, friendship, and fraternal support between Christians and Muslims

Metropolit Kiril
Source: Kazanjska eparhija

Specially prepared for Kosovo Online from Kazan by: Zeljko Sain

Not long ago, we visited Kazan, the capital city of Tatarstan, a republic within the Russian Federation. Despite being greeted by very low temperatures, averaging as much as 16 degrees below zero, we were enchanted by the winter landscapes adorned with snow reaching human shoulder height. The nights were even colder, but they had their charm under the light of Tesla's invention, drawing energy from Russia's natural resources from the Volga and natural gas, which the world craves, while the snowy whiteness colors the romantic atmosphere in the fusion of Christian and Muslim youth.

The majority of the population consists of Tatars (52 percent) and Russians (39 percent). The official languages are Tatar and Russian. Christians and Muslims in the modern-day territory of Tatarstan have centuries of experience in coexistence. Although it hasn't always been this way, today they can serve as an example of successful symbiosis. Tatarstan is widely known today for the level of peace and harmony, friendship, and fraternal support between Christians and Muslims. Their motto is "We Can!" and ours could be: "We can emulate them!"

The reason for our visit was precisely to verify that such a thing is possible, especially today when we witness armed conflicts even among Slavic brethren, and that not far from Tatarstan.

We visited the Kazan Diocese, located 800 km away from Moscow, where we were warmly welcomed by Metropolitan Kirill of Kazan and Tatarstan amidst a heavy winter snowstorm. He served as our guide through the history of the relationship between two peoples and two faiths. Over warm Russian tea and homemade pastries, we discussed the intertwining of secular and spiritual culture in this region of the world, where differences have managed to reconcile and prove that life in harmony between two faiths and two peoples is possible, provided that politics of interest does not interfere. However, not far from there, on the territory of Ukraine, Slavic brethren are at war, and in this temple, prayers for peace and love among all people of the world are said every day to end this senseless conflict.

"Once here, in the middle Volga, there existed a state known today as the Volga or Volga Bulgaria. In 922 AD, Islam became its official religion, but Christians were also widely represented in its territory: in the cities of Volga Bulgaria, located on the important trade route of Eurasia, a significant number of Byzantine and Armenian traders and merchants from other Christian states were constantly present. Residents originating from ancient Russian principalities also lived here for years. Moreover, there is a legend that the baptizer of Russia, the Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir, sent one of the Christian missionaries to the Bulgars, as a result of which several local princes and their families were baptized," began our host Metropolitan Kirill.

Did Christianity persist in these lands even after the conquest of Volga Bulgaria by the Mongols in the 13th century?

At that time, Volga Bulgaria was annexed to the Golden Horde, to which the Russian principalities were also subject. In 1261, at the initiative of the revered Prince Alexander Nevsky, an Orthodox diocese was established in the capital of the Horde, the city of Sarai, which included communities in the territory of present-day Tatarstan. The Lives of the Holy Bulgarian Martyrs Abraham (13th century) and Theodore (14th century) clearly testify to the significant number of Orthodox Christians in our region at that time.

Of course, the relationship between Christians and Muslims was far from peaceful and harmonious at that time. How was harmony established in their coexistence, which we witness today?

A significant role in this process was played by the incorporation of the Middle Volga into the Russian state and the establishment of the Kazan Diocese in 1555. Let us recall that the first archpastor of the Kazan lands, St. Gurias, before being sent to Kazan, received the following order from the tsar: "Do not force them to baptism inadvertently, treat the pagans gently, with tenderness, do not act harshly towards them, and if necessary, release them from the judgment of the military governors and officials". Thus, gradually, a unique multinational and multi-confessional community of representatives of different nations (Russians, Tatars, Chuvash, Mari, Udmurts, and others) emerged in the territory of the Kazan region, most of whom adhered to Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

What was the role of Empress Catherine the Great in strengthening interreligious balance in the second half of the 18th century?

After visiting Kazan, the Empress legalized the official activity of Muslim clergy in Russia and allowed the construction of new mosques. As a result, by the 19th century, Kazan became a unique Russian city, with the towers of Orthodox churches and the minarets of mosques looming over it, in an atmosphere where the sounds of church bells and calls to prayer mingled. Let me give you an interesting example: in the mid-19th century, the Tatar language was taught at the Kazan Theological Seminary and the Kazan Theological School by the prominent Tatar educator Kayum Nasiri. Although he was a Muslim, he not only decided that he could work in Orthodox theological schools, but he even received accommodation in the Seminary building. So, we see that in one Orthodox educational institution, they warmly welcomed a person of a different faith who was open to cooperation and dialogue. For those times, this was a rather brave step on both sides.

As is known, the 20th century in the history of your country was marked by great persecutions of believers. How did this affect the relationship between Christians and Muslims?

These persecutions affected not only the Russian Orthodox Church but also other religious communities. Churches and mosques were being closed, desecrated, and destroyed en masse, and representatives of both Orthodox and Muslim clergy, as well as active parishioners, were subjected to repression. The need to survive in conditions of intense pressure from atheistic authorities, while preserving their faith and tradition, further brought together the believers of both faiths.

An important event for all believers of the Soviet Union was the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Russia in 1988. What changes did this bring to the lives of the Christian and Muslim communities in Kazan?

From that moment on, there began a gradual return of temples and the revival of desecrated sanctuaries. Moreover, this process affected not only the Russian Orthodox Church but also, as I repeat, all religious communities of the USSR, including Muslims. Thus, a visible sign of changes in the life of the Orthodox and Muslim communities in Kazan became the fact that in 1989, two exceptional monuments of spiritual culture and local architecture were returned to them – the magnificent Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul (a masterpiece of Russian Baroque from the early 18th century in the Volga region) and the beautiful Azimov Mosque.

Since then, has there been a tradition of parallel restoration and construction of Orthodox and Muslim religious objects in Tatarstan?

As a part of the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the city of Kazan in 2005, after restoration, the ancient cathedral of our diocese – the Annunciation Cathedral in Kazan Kremlin – was consecrated. At the same time, the Kul Sharif Mosque, built on the territory of the Kazan Kremlin, was opened. During the 1990s and 2000s, restoration work was carried out on Orthodox shrines on the island city of Sviyazhsk and Muslim shrines in ancient Bolgar. Then, as a part of the celebration of National Unity Day on November 4, 2015, the President of the Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Nurgalievich Minnikhanov, signed a decree on the restoration of the cathedral church demolished in the 1930s, dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God (at the place where this miraculous icon was found) and on the establishment of the Bulgarian Islamic Academy. The first President of Tatarstan, Mintimer Sharipovich Shaimiev, played a significant role in the implementation of all these projects. We all witnessed how he, a Muslim, wholeheartedly cared about the revival of our Orthodox shrines, actively participating in all discussions, delving into every detail, and rejoicing in the restoration of the Kazan Cathedral Church and the monasteries in Sviyazhsk. I believe this is an excellent example that illustrates the level of peace and harmony, friendship, and fraternal support among Christians and Muslims, for which Tatarstan is known far beyond its borders.

Have contacts between Orthodox Christians and Muslims transcended the official sphere?

We have many joint ventures, victories, and achievements. Last August, two of our priests – Hieromonks Ambrose (Gornovsky) and Varsonofy (Obozov) from the Makaryevsky Monastery – climbed Mount Ararat together with a group of Muslims, led by Tatarstan's Mufti Kamil Hazrat Samigullin. And two years before that, in August 2021, the same priests, at the invitation of Mufti Kamil Hazrat, participated in a similar joint ascent to the highest peak in Europe – Mount Elbrus.

How important are sports and education for nurturing relations between the two peoples and faiths?

The All-Russian Ice Hockey Tournament for the "Friendship Cup – Dustlik" has become traditional. It involves amateur hockey teams from Kazan and other cities. It is important to note that in the Kazan team, representatives of the Muslim and Orthodox clergy of the republic play together.

There are also competitions for students of Orthodox and Muslim educational institutions and joint participation in spiritual care for soldiers performing their military service. We also have joint charitable projects. For example, our priests, together with representatives of the Muslim clergy, participate in activities of the humanitarian foundation to assist socially vulnerable segments of the population, "Shelter for the Human". This foundation provides shelter, food, clothing daily, and legal assistance to the homeless, while the priests spiritually care for the foundation's wards. Additionally, social support services – such as the Orthodox service "Mercy Kazan" and Muslim "Yardem" and "Zakat" – assist each other, providing support to those in need, regardless of their faith, and mutually referring Orthodox Christians and Muslims who have found themselves in distress to the service that corresponds to their faith, where they can be helped not only financially but also spiritually.

This benevolent conversation has enriched our outlook on the world and instilled hope for the reconciliation of all peoples and all differences. Humanity, respect, and love are universal values shared by all people, regardless of their nationality, wherever they may live, and whatever their beliefs may be.

Every day, we thank God for this great gift of living in peace, harmony, love, and respect with our Muslim brothers. And we hope that our unity will never be tainted, clouded, or destroyed by anything.