VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (RNS)--At the close of the final service on themost important day in the Orthodox Christian calendar, Father VladimirSamoilenko stood before hundreds of parishioners dressed in their Easterbest. In a broad baritone somewhere between a shout and a roar, hedelivered a blessing.

"This great Easter, we celebrate victory, the victory of life overdeath," declared Samoilenko, a large man in a scarlet cassock. "Justas Christ was triumphant, let our Russian army also be victorious. Letour army conquer evil with good. God bless our Russian army."

Samoilenko then introduced a general and two colonels from the localmilitary academy who, in turn, presented him with a medal forOutstanding Service.

The priest, the officers, several other clergy, and a few guests thenretired to the rectory, where the good feelings between Jesus' churchand Russia's army were cemented with several liters of vodka and apost-Lenten feast stretching into the night.

As formalities were dropped and the toasts grew more heartfelt, thespirit of triumphalism gave way to a sense of two embattled institutionsin deep need of each other here on Russia's southern flank, just a fewmiles from the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya--and closer to Iranthan to Moscow.

Father Innokenty Vasetsky, 23, stood and raised his glass to thesoldiers stationed in Chechnya, where after six years of fighting,military casualties number in the tens of thousands.

"It is a cruel war; it is not a war in some foreign land but righthere on our territory," said Vasetsky, a soft-spoken monk assigned twomonths ago to Vladikavkaz. "In our hospital, how many Tartars and otherMuslims have we baptized? After fighting in Chechnya, they understandthe difference between Islam and Christianity."

Wounded soldiers are frequently evacuated from the battlefield toVladikavkaz's 236th Military Hospital, to which Samoilenko said hefrequently makes pastoral visits, performing 70 baptisms on one recordday.

A few seats down the long, linen-topped Easter banquet table satCol. Alexander Kovalyov, 47, an instructor at the city's NorthernCaucasus Red Banner Military Institute who holds five graduate degreesand writes poetry in his spare time. He also cast Russia's attempts toregain control of Chechnya in religious, patriotic terms.

"We are fighting Islamic fascism, that's what we are doing. In theGreat Patriotic War, we fought German Fascism," he said, using theRussian term for World War II. "Now we are fighting Islamic fascism."

Such Russian leaders as newly elected President Vladimir Putin takegreat pains to avoid casting the Chechen conflict in religious terms,mindful of the 20 million Muslims among Russia's 146 million citizens. However,among ordinary Russians, there is widespread belief that Chechnya'sestimated 4,000 to 5,000 rebel fighters belong to the puritanical,ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic movement and are financed fromrich Arab states. The truth is elusive.

The Russian Orthodox Church here is casting itself now in much thesame role it played 150 years ago, when Vladikavkaz was a fortressoutpost in the Caucasus mountains, and the czar's army was battling topacify the local Muslim peoples.

"This has always been an outpost of both Orthodoxy and the Russiangovernment. So the rebuilding of one means the rebuilding of another,"said Samoilenko, in an interview on Orthodox Easter Day (April 30), a week after the Western church Easter.

Since ethnic strife first erupted in the Caucasus region in the late1980s, an estimated 50,000 ethnic Russians have left the Vladikavkaz region for friendlier cities elsewhere in Russia.

Lev Khasiyev, 65, director of the city's House of Art and a deputychurchwarden at another Orthodox church, said for the ethnic Russiansremaining, "the church is a very important factor in keeping themfeeling connected to Russians elsewhere and Christians throughout theworld."

A year ago, a bomb killed at least 65 people at a crowded markethere. When fighting was at its fiercest this winter, Chechnya-boundrockets and helicopter gunships flew over Vladikavkaz. To this day,kidnappings here are common in this city of 650,000, with one couplegrabbed April 27 on the outskirts of town as they emerged from a taxi.

Russian Orthodox priests, too, are targets. Over a two-month periodlast spring, three priests, two of them elderly, were kidnapped from theneighboring republic of Ingushetia. At least two Russian Orthodoxpriests and a Baptist pastor have been murdered in Chechnya itself.

When a position for a rector opened up at Vladikavkaz's Church ofElijah the Prophet, the bishop asked for volunteers. No one steppedforward, and eligible priests were preparing to draw lots when the rulingbishop asked Samoilenko to take the spot. He did and moved south withhis wife and two children. Now the 33-year-old priest seems to relishhis role as a beacon of hope and stability for local Christians and as a"cleansing influence" at the local military institute.

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