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Volume 4, Number 72


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BESLAN MEMORIAL SPARKS RELIGIOUS TENSION IN NORTH OSSETIA

By Andrei Smirnov

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On April 10 Emma Tagaeva-Betrozova, head of “Voice of Beslan,” asked for Muslim input on plans to build a memorial to commemorate victims of the Beslan tragedy. Her organization unites victims and survivors of the terrorist raid on the North Ossetian town of Beslan on September 1-3, 2004.

Plans to build only an Orthodox church as part of the monument have caused serious conflict between Muslims and the Orthodox Church. In her open letter to Ravil Ganutdinov, the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia and the leader of Russian Muslims, Tagaeva-Betrozova said, “All members of the Voice of Beslan agree that one religion should not be smothered while the other extolled in the tragedy of Beslan.” Tagaeva-Betrozova told the story of her husband and two of her sons, all Muslims who died when the terrorists seized the school, but throughout the ordeal they behaved in a manner that “did not tarnish the honor and dignity of a Muslim.” Tagaeva-Betrozova argued, “After such grief it is a big mistake to inspire a standoff between the two faiths” (Interfax, April 10).

Talks to build a monument in Beslan have been ongoing since the siege ended, leaving hundred dead. The North Ossetian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church has tried to control the process from the very beginning. As early as 2004 Father Feofan, the Orthodox bishop of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, proposed building a church in Beslan near the ruined school. The Ossetian authorities supported this idea and helped establish a board of trustees to monitor the project.

Efforts to build the church intensified in 2005. Mayrbek Tuaev, chairman of the board of trustees, declared on May 12, 2005, that plans for the design of the memorial had already been sent to Moscow for approval. According to Tuaev, the future memorial would resemble an Orthodox Church with two domes. One of the domes would cover the gym of the school, where the terrorists had gathered their hostages during the siege. While the board of trustees formally announced the design of the monument, in fact the Ossetian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and Father Feofan himself were actually behind it.

On September 6, 2005, Alexei II, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, visited North Ossetia to meet with Teimuraz Mamsurov, the republican leader. “The people of North Ossetia feel and appreciate the spiritual support of the Russian Orthodox Church,” Mamsurov told the patriarch at the meeting. In particular, he pointed out that the number of people in the republic who convert to Orthodoxy had significantly increased in the wake of the Beslan tragedy.

Nevertheless, as the Ossetian authorities and the Orthodox Church made progress toward their goal of building a church in Beslan, they encountered more and more resistance from other confessions. On October 16, 2006, Klemens Pickel, the Catholic Bishop of Saratov, criticized the decision to build an Orthodox-only church in Beslan. Pickel insisted that the last word on the memorial’s design should belong to the relatives of the hostages, not to churches. To justify his argument, Pickel claimed that most of the parents of the victims were not Christians but pagans. The bishop described how he had witnessed parents bringing pagan symbols to the graves of their children, such as jars full of water. The Bishop also stressed that he had not heard of any calls from the residents of Beslan to build an Orthodox church alongside the memorial (Mir religiy, October 16, 2006).

Russian Muslim leaders protested the Catholic bishop’s statement. Nafigula Ashirov, the Mufti of the Asian part of Russia, declared last fall that 70% of those who were killed in Beslan were Muslims. The Ossetian Orthodox leader, Father Feofan, responded by saying, “This fact is a falsification” and “most of the dead were Christians.”

On March 23 this year, Muslim leader Ganutdinov visited Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, to meet with Mamsurov. During the meeting Ganutdinov complained that a cross had been erected in the gym of the ruined school but not a crescent, the symbol of Islam. He argued, “This is unfair toward Muslims” (NG-Religiya, April 4). Four days later Ganutdinov called for a mosque to be built in Beslan near the planned Orthodox church.

Ossetian Muslims supported Ganutdinov’s demarche. Tavkazakhov, the Ossetian mufti, accused the authorities and the Orthodox Church of putting pressure on Beslan’s Muslims or simply ignoring their opinion on the church issue. “People are outraged by this fact, because they buried their children according to Muslim traditions and they continue to keep their faith,” Tavkazakhov said. He also accused Father Feofan of avoiding a dialogue with Ossetian Muslims. According to the mufti, “Feofan presents North Ossetia as an Orthodox republic and this hurts the feelings of 200,000 Ossetian Muslims” (Kavkazky uzel, April 4).

Russian Muslim leaders support the idea of building an inter-denominational house of worship in Beslan. Historically, Beslan has been a Muslim town, but the republican authorities have tried to hide the fact that there is a large Muslim community in the region. It is unlikely that the local Orthodox leader would remain so steadfast in defending his idea to have an Orthodox church in Beslan if he did not have the tacit support of the authorities, both regional and in Moscow. Considering the current unstable situation in the North Caucasus, the Kremlin may be interested in popularizing Orthodoxy in the most loyal of the Caucasus regions. Propagating Islam in North Ossetia is not part of the plan.

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