The northern Caucasus region has traditionally been a hotbed of political dissent and conservative Islam in Russia. Violent outbreaks in the struggle for an independent Islamic state have characterized the region since Russia conquered the region in the early 19th-century.
Two recent wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2000) ended in Russian military forces crushing the Chechen Islamic rebels’ bids for independence. Though the organized resistance was defeated, the Russian military has been forced to maintain vigilance and fight occasional skirmishes against the pockets of rebels in the mountains in this region.
The face of the conflict has, however, changed drastically since July of this year when the center of Islamic activity in the Caucasus shifted eastward from the mountains to Dagestan, where the vast majority of “extremist” attacks now occur. With the Russian military stepping up its force in the area, the number of “extremists” killed since July has now risen to nearly a hundred. In one incident, members of the local Muslim clergy, who were loyal to Moscow, were attacked and killed. In another, the teacher at a madrasah (Islamic school) was murdered.
In response to these attempts to carve out an Islamic state, the Russian government launched a large-scale military operation across the North Caucasus region. Concerned that militants would attempt to make a statement through attacks on the 2014 Winter Olympics and other high profile events planned, the Russian army engaged in this aggressive operation has already killed 49 militants.
Adding to the tension, it has become apparent that it is no longer just the Caucasus region that Russia has to worry about. Some 500 miles east of the Russian capital of Moscow lies the city of Kazan in the Republic of Tartarstan. Since Arab traders introduced Islam to the region more than 1,000 years ago, the Muslim populations of Tatarstan and the neighboring Republic of Bashkortostan have swelled to more than 50%. Moderates have long dominated the local Muslim religious community; recently, however, more radical clerics have gained a wider following and extremist attacks are on the rise.
In July, two simultaneous attacks were carried out in Kazan in which the Tatarstan Mufti was injured in a car bombing and a prominent imam was gunned down. In October, the imam of the Al-Ikhlas a Muslim place of worship in the Tatar capital, Kazan, was charged with organizing “extremist” activities. Also in October, a court in Kazan closed the Islamic Cultural Center because it had been distributing Islamic textbooks and providing religious lessons without a license.
WHAT IS THE EFFECT ON CHRISTIANS?
Though the pressure on Christians from traditionally Christian ethnic groups in these Islamic regions has been limited, the situation is difficult for Muslim Background Believers (MBB) in the Caucasus region who are accused of betraying their people and culture.
These MBBs are often harassed and thrown out of their families and communities, sometimes forcing them to take refuge in safe houses. As a result, many MBBs live as secret believers. Other Christians (e.g. ethnic Russians), who are open about their faith, have to be careful. Frequently regarded as part of the occupying government, their involvement in openly Christian activities might be viewed as a threat.
Russia has traditionally tolerated Islam as long as it presented no threat to Russian rule. Even recently, the Russian government tried to garner favor with moderate Muslims by launching a new Islamic TV channel broadcasting in the Russian language about Islamic topics. In areas where militant Muslims are fighting for independence, however, the Russian government’s reaction has been heavy-handed and the number of military campaigns against Islamic militants continues to climb.
Russia faces a serious dilemma as violent Islamic resistance to the central authority is spreading from the isolated Caucasus region to other Islamic areas in the Russian heartland. With Muslims becoming increasingly puritanical, growing numbers are taking up arms. Moscow cannot ultimately win the struggle against extremist Islam through military means. Military campaigns may be able to counter localized rebel activity, but they can never entirely quench resistance stemming from ideology. Though Moscow may not realize it, true hope lies in the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Father God, we pray today for the Muslim Background Believers in the areas where militant Muslims are active. Many live out their faith in secret or are forced to flee if discovered. Fathe,r be there for them and provide for all of their needs, both physical and spiritual. Assure them that they are not alone and that we are praying for them. Father, we lift up to You the few open churches in the northern Caucasus. We pray that these believers will find creative ways to share the gospel with Muslims in these difficult areas. And Father, our hearts are concerned with the rise of Islam in Russia. We pray that You raise up a mighty army of bold believers to be a witness to the millions of Russians who are seeking the truth found only through Your son Jesus Christ. Amen
SOURCES: Radio Free Europe, Asia News, Assist News Service, Hurriyet Daily News