North Caucasus (southern Russia): Church Struggles amidst Terror
By: Elizabeth KendalReligious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 030 | Wed 11 Nov 2009
NORTH CAUCASUS (southern Russia): CHURCH STRUGGLES AMIDST TERROR
The Caucasus Mountains stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. (See http://media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/23/5923-004-7A08A3DC.gif ) Running along the ridge is the western edge of Russia's southern border. To the south lie Azerbaijan and Iran on the Caspian Sea, as well as Georgia and Turkey on the Black Sea. The Russian republics north of the border are known as the North Caucasus. From east to west they are Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea and have been part of the Russian Empire for more than 200 years. Historically they have been populated by various non-Slavic secular and 'folk'-Muslims, including Turkic, Indo-Iranian, Ingush, Chechens and Circassians.
The break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 was orchestrated by megalomaniacs promoting ethnic separatism for personal gain (men wanting to be presidents). The Republic of Chechnya was fiercely contested. Whilst Chechnya failed to gain independence, it did gain the attention of the international Islamic jihadist movement which recognised it as an opportunity not to be missed! By 1998-99, al-Qaeda-linked jihadists had totally hijacked the separatist struggle, a common jihadi strategy. They aim to establish an Islamic state of high geo-strategic significance stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, through Abkhazia, an ethnically cleansed, Abkhaz Muslim, self- declared independent province in Georgia. (See http://iguide.travel/illustrations/North_Caucasus-1.png ) The jihadists, many of them foreigners, not only dragged the Chechens and Dagestanis into a new war; they also set about Arabising and Islamising the Muslim population, the Slavs having already largely fled the earlier ethnic conflict. The locals were divided: whilst some were recruited to the fundamentalist jihadists' trans-national cause, anti-Wahhabist nationalists and others resisted and turned to Moscow for help. President Ramzan Kadyrov's heavy hand in Chechnya has forced the terrorists, now fighting under the black flag of the 'Caucasus Emirate', to shift the focus of their jihad from Chechnya to neighbouring Ingushetia.
In May 2009, Dokka Abu Usman, the 'Emir of Mujahideen of Caucasus Emirate', declared, 'This year will be our offensive year.' In just the northern summer of 2009 there were 462 violent incidents recorded in the North Caucasus compared with some 265 in the whole of 2008. A week does not go by in Ingushetia without civilians being killed and maimed in terror attacks and assassinations. On 17 August a popular Islamic preacher named Said Abu Saad al-Buryati drove his bomb-laden car into the police headquarters in Nazran, capital of Ingushetia, killing 25 and wounding up to 260. Said al-Buryati had a Christian mother and came from the Buddhist autonomous region of Buryat in eastern Siberia. He converted to Islam as a teenager and was later radicalised for jihad at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. He said he was in Ingushetia to kill 'apostates and infidels . . . who oppose Islam'.
Complicating the situation, the North Caucasus Moscow-backed administrations are not only riddled with corruption, their security forces are not too careful about how they deal with jihadists. This approach -- akin to tackling a cancer wishfully and wildly with a hammer rather than specifically and surgically with a scalpel -- is only adding to the pain, fear and anger already permeating the impoverished population. Furthermore, these Muslims belong to a warrior culture with a tradition of blood-feud. Their suffering at the hands of local authorities makes them ripe for picking by jihadist recruiters.
Amidst this escalating terror and threat is a church that needs our prayers. The remnant Russian Orthodox Church is ethnic and closely associated with Moscow and the Russian army. The Protestants are mostly Baptist and some Pentecostals. Protestant fellowships are missional, despite the risks, and ethnically mixed: mostly Russian, but also Caucasians, including some converts from Islam. In some places, particularly in Chechnya, jihadists have totally eliminated the Christian presence. There are few Protestants in North Ossetia, the only 'Christian' province in the North Caucasus, where the trauma of the Beslan terror attack in September 2004 still runs deep. The churches of the North Caucasus are generally very small, highly vulnerable, greatly at risk, and heavily burdened in a dark region too dangerous for foreign missionaries.