2016-07-27
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VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (RNS)--At the close of the final service on the most important day in the Orthodox Christian calendar, Father Vladimir Samoilenko stood before hundreds of parishioners dressed in their Easter best. In a broad baritone somewhere between a shout and a roar, he delivered a blessing.

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

Samoilenko then introduced a general and two colonels from the local military academy who, in turn, presented him with a medal for Outstanding Service.

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

As formalities were dropped and the toasts grew more heartfelt, the spirit of triumphalism gave way to a sense of two embattled institutions in deep need of each other here on Russia's southern flank, just a few miles from the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya--and closer to Iran than to Moscow.

Father Innokenty Vasetsky, 23, stood and raised his glass to the soldiers 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 right here on our territory," said Vasetsky, a soft-spoken monk assigned two months ago to Vladikavkaz. "In our hospital, how many Tartars and other Muslims have we baptized? After fighting in Chechnya, they understand the difference between Islam and Christianity."

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

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

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

Such Russian leaders as newly elected President Vladimir Putin take great 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's estimated 4,000 to 5,000 rebel fighters belong to the puritanical, ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic movement and are financed from rich Arab states. The truth is elusive.

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

"This has always been an outpost of both Orthodoxy and the Russian government. 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 late 1980s, 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 deputy churchwarden at another Orthodox church, said for the ethnic Russians remaining, "the church is a very important factor in keeping them feeling connected to Russians elsewhere and Christians throughout the world."

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

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

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

Samoilenko is a regular guest lecturer at the Institute and takes part in cadets' induction and graduation exercises. He sees the Russian Orthodox Church as vital to restoring the military's sense of purpose, something it often loses sight of in Chechnya, according to human rights monitors.

Human Rights Watch, for example, has documented scores of cases of Russian soldiers robbing, raping, and murdering civilians in Chechnya during sometimes drunken rampages. Russian military leaders are indignant at the accusations and point to what they call the greater evil of Chechen bandits' kidnapping business that has claimed thousands of victims.

Samoilenko said a "Christ-loving, peacekeeping army" would not engage in such excesses.

Among the high-ranking officers gathered at the Easter banquet, there was little doubt about the purpose of their military service. "We believe in Orthodoxy. We will die for Orthodoxy," said Kovalyov, who earns the ruble equivalent of $105 a month.

The newfound, post-Soviet union of army and church is full of ironies.

Both colonels at the Easter banquet are former members of the Communist Party, which had no place for believers and nearly drove the Russian Orthodox Church to extinction in the 1930s. Samoilenko's five brothers are all priests, as was his father, the victim of frequent government harassment in Soviet times. His church is one of three Orthodox churches in Vladikavkaz, which boasted 28 before the 1917 revolution ushered in 70 years of state-sponsored atheism.

Largely because of this Soviet legacy, here on the edge of Russia the church is straining to meet the demands placed on it. Samoilenko said a three-man delegation arrived on Good Friday from the Chechen village of Assinovskaya asking for a priest for Easter. He had to refuse them.

"We just didn't have anyone to spare," he said.

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