15.04.11 15:25

Unifying power of spirituality

Interview by Bishop Feofilakt of Pyatigorsk and Circassia for "Turkmenistan" magazine

A pastor’s path in life is thorny and tortuous. Spiritual affairs lead his life to where people need him more. On the day, when my meeting with him was set, he was still heading the diocese of Smolensk and Vyazemsk. On the very next day, it was announced that he was appointed to another post. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) decided to appoint Feofilakt (secular name Denis Anatolyevich Kuryanov) as Bishop of Pyatigorsk and Circassia and sent him to the newly established diocese.

At the same time, he retained supervision of parishes in the Patriarchal deanery in Turkmenistan. This duty was assigned to Feofilakt by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II as early as autumn 2008, when the ROC’s Holy Synod decided that all parishes in Turkmenistan would now be under the Patriarch’s direct pastoral supervision. The responsibility for managing the parishes was entrusted to a priest appointed by the Patriarch. The choice fell on Feofilakt.

Question: Your Eminence, let’s recall your first pastoral visit to Turkmenistan, which took place more than two years ago. What were your impressions of the country?

Answer: At that time and during all my subsequent visits to Turkmenistan it was difficult for me to recover from the sense of amazement and admiration for the visible grandiose transformations in the life of the country. The consistent policy pursued by Turkmenistan aimed at achieving economic prosperity combined with the maximum attention to interests of common people and high guarantees of social protection of the population inspires sincere respect. Starting from the very first trip, I have been cherishing the kindest feelings toward the Turkmen people – the bearers of the most ancient national cultural traditions of friendship, wisdom and religious tolerance. 

Q: The Orthodox mission in a country where the indigenous population is Muslim… Isn’t there a contradiction in the situation itself?

A: By asking such a question, you, regretfully, follow the existing delusion that contacts between representatives of different faiths can lead to a conflict. The years-long experience of existence of the Russian Orthodox Church in close contacts with different religions suggests otherwise. Russia is in fact a multi-confessional state, in which Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Lutheranism peacefully coexist in one territory. Moreover, the ROC parishes operate across the world – in Asia, Africa, North and South America – and nowhere their presence causes conflicts on religious grounds. What many people mistakenly refer to inter-religious contradictions is, in fact, nothing but the conflict between enlightenment and ignorance, culture and barbarism.

Turkmenistan is a country of high domestic national culture. This is the culture based on profound respect for a human personality and blessed folk traditions of maintaining good neighborly relations. After all, even the state’s official foreign policy doctrine – permanent, positive neutrality – is an expression of the essence of the Turkmen society’s historical experience, i.e. an ability to live in peace with each neighbor and to find common language with any interlocutor. All this naturally transmitted onto the attitudes toward the Russian Orthodox Church and the interests of its parishioners.

Turkmenistan is a purely secular state, but religion in the country, being an integral part of the culture and attitudes of citizens, is under the patronage of the authorities that declared the important slogan – «The State is for People.» Under these circumstances, the interests of the Orthodox congregation, which according to the indicative estimates constitutes about ten percent of the six million population of Turkmenistan, can’t just be ignored by the authorities. And we now really feel this positive attention to the concerns and problems of the ROC in Turkmenistan.

Q: What objectives does the Russian Orthodox Church set as part of its presence in the territory of Turkmenistan?

A: First and foremost, this is a humanitarian mission of the spiritual and cultural education. For people of different nationalities living far from their historical homeland - and among the baptized believers there are Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and Belarusians – the Orthodox Church remains a spiritual and cultural center. It is very pleasing to see that the parishioners of our churches in Turkmenistan constitute a big united family, which gathers to pray to God, to communicate and to find both spiritual inspiration and simple human comfort in this communication.

One of the current priorities is to strengthen the material base and to create a full cadre of priests.

At present, 12 Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan have 15 priests. One of them has been ordained only recently (for the first time for many years). The load falling on their shoulders is sometimes very heavy. Nine young men from Turkmenistan – the current students of the Theologian course in the Smolensk Seminary, who chose to be priests, will be able to help significantly. In addition, seven girls from Turkmenistan will get secondary religious education in Smolensk, preparing to become mentors at Sunday schools.

Most of the Orthodox churches in Turkmenistan are structures built before 1917, requiring overhaul or complete restoration. The Government of Turkmenistan, to some extent, supports the Orthodox churches. In particular, all parishes do not pay for gas and electricity and utilities. However, the condition of many Orthodox churches still need repair.

For example, in the Turkmen city of Bairamali there is a magnificent church of St. Alexis, Metropolitan of Moscow. The construction of this church in the Czar’s Murgab region was initiated by Archpriest Mikhail Korobov of the trans-Caspian Patriarchal deanery in 1902. The greatest figures of the Russian culture at that time – Architect Alexei Shchusev and painter Mikhail Nesterovtook were directly involved in construction of the church. The church’s unique paintings were under a real threat of extinction due to the dilapidation of roof structures. Last year we, having combined the efforts of the parishioners, were able to complete the repair of the roof. We hope to eventually restore the unique murals, and then the church will open for parishioners in all its splendor of the unique architectural monument.

Building new churches also needs attention. On April 24, 2009, for the first time in 12 years a new church was consecrated in the town of Tejen in honor of the Apostle Thomas. In the same year, on 21 December, the consecration of the church of the Saints Cyril and Methodius was held in the city of Abadan. Construction of another church in the north of the country, in Dashoguz, is under way. 

Q: How fully are the activities of the ROC in Turkmenistan communicated?

A: For a long time the parishioners of the Orthodox churches have been in the obvious information vacuum due to apparent lack of religious literature, as there existed a ban on imports of foreign publications in Turkmenistan. Currently, this problem has been resolved favorably. The ROC has received official permission to import into the country items of religious service and church literature.

I believe opening of the official Internet website of the Patriarch deanery in Turkmenistan – www.pravoslavie.tm – is our main achievement of the recent period in the information field. The website was officially presented on November 4, 2010 at «Manezh» Exhibition Hall in Moscow during the traditional public forum-exhibition «Orthodox Russia – Day of National Unity.» The Deanery’s site has a strong educational value. It is for the first time that New and partly Old Testament in the Turkmen language and some materials on the history of Orthodoxy in Turkmenistan can be accessed online.

Q: Talking about languages. As is known, you have also initiated the translation of traditional Orthodox greetings «Merry Christmas», «Christ is Risen!» into Turkmen. Can these messages in the Turkmen language be considered an attempt of the Orthodox missionary work?

A: Not at all! Our sole mission is humanitarian, cultural, and educational. And the translation of the Scripture or traditional Christian greeting into the Turkmen language is guided by the desire to be understood and accordingly avoid any possible distrust of the purity of sincere intentions.

Let’s look around. In the contemporary world, where every day is full of reports on clashes between good and evil, there are many destructive forces striving to exploit any clue to foment internecine strife. It is not a secret that there are often some attempts to play a religious card. These attempts can succeed in places where people are uneducated and blind, when their consciousness is spoiled with dry, perverted dogmas that have nothing to do with the true faith. The true faith acquires the healing, peace-keeping force only as a product of high culture and deep knowledge. The theological enlightenment is important not as a weapon of fanaticism, but as a tool for learning the external world.

I have no doubt that our position finds a real understanding in Turkmenistan. I saw it last autumn during my visit to Turkmenistan when we met with Rashid Meredov, Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers and Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan. This meeting and very meaningful discussions were very important in terms of defining positions and aspirations of the Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan. Among other topics, there was expressed the need to build an Orthodox cathedral in the capital and create on its basis a cultural and educational center.

Q: What makes you confident in favorable prospects of strengthening Orthodox religion in Turkmenistan?

The past is invisibly involved in our lives today. This presence of the past in today’s life of Turkmenistan, which is the successor of the great ancient culture, is felt in a unique way. However, Orthodoxy is also one of the most ancient cultural traditions of humanity. Not surprisingly, contacts between the two great and profound traditions serve their mutual enrichment…

There is another surprising characteristic of the Orthodox spiritual tradition – not to try to remake nations that adopted Christianity, but rather to serve their development and enrichment. In Turkmenistan, too, the Orthodox communities were naturally integrated into the social life of civil society.

Orthodoxy and Islam have long preserved the traditions of peaceful coexistence. This was the case during the Arab caliphate and in the ancient states of Khorezm. This is now the case in contemporary Turkmenistan after independence. One can learn lessons from history. However, history’s main stimulating motive is turned into the present day reality. Turkmenistan’s new history is being created before our eyes in our era. And the Orthodox Church is an active participant in this history.

Today, all Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan pray for the well-ordered and peaceful life in the country. They ask God for protection of the Turkmen land from calamities and bad things that have filled the lives of nations that are thrilled by their high degree of development and who, at the same time, have forgotten God. We believe that Turkmenistan has a great future and we are ready to work to ensure that it comes true. And it seems that this will happen, not in least case, by work and prayers by Orthodox Christians living in the ancient Turkmen land.

Interviewed by Mikhail PEREPLESNIN

Printer-friendly version