The Caucasus

Christian Orthodox versus Islam

The Caucasus is a cross-roads of the major religions of Islam and Christian Orthodoxy.  The people of the area are an ethnic/linguistic mix of Caucasian, Armenian, Slavic, Greek, Iranian, Turk and Mongol.  During the rule of the Soviet Union there was comparative peace in the region, but under the surface simmered ancient hatreds among these various communities, particularly religious jealousies.  Since the demise of the Soviet Union these hatreds have erupted.  This resultant disruption to peace and stability in the region has frustrated ongoing projects by East and West to develop and exploit the extensive oil and gas reserves in this area of the world.  Border wars amongst the religious combatants are more and more the norm, taking their toll on lives and property destruction.

(Azerbaijan/Armenia) Christians versus Muslims

Azerbaijan and Armenia are two of the 15 countries which composed the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and are closely tied together by geography and history.  Together they compose a land mass larger than Portugal, though not as well known to most westerners.  They both achieved their current political status as de jure countries with the establishment of the USSR in 1920, though principally the Armenians as an ethnic group have existed for over 1,500 years and are one of the world´s oldest centers of civilization.  They regained their sovereignty with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.  Both countries lie on the southeastern flanks of the Caucasus mountains near the Caspian Sea, an area which at one time, included the Nagorno-Karabakh Authonomous Oblast (Christian) as well.

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, while Armenia is Christian.

Three-quarters of the Azerbaijans are predominately Turkic Strain, having immmigrated from what is now Turkey in the 11th century.  The rest are comprised of Russians, Iranians and others who lived in Transcaucasia since ancient times.

In Armenia, in addition to the Turkish Armenians, there are Iranian, Russian, European and American Armenians, the actual foundations of Armenian civilization, however, having been laid in the 6th century BC on the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Urartu in the area which now comprises the nations of Iran and Turkey.  The Armenians were converted to Christianity circa AD 300 and have an ancient and rich liturgical and Christian literary tradition.  Believing Areminians today belong mainly to the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church or the American Catholic (Roman Catholic) Church.

(Chechnya) Orthodox versus Muslims

Behind Russian Premier Vladimir Putin’s war with the Chechens of the Caucasus region in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is an effort to stem the northward rush of Islam at the Caucasian range – whatever the degree of blood shed.  And, within the Chechens themselves there appear to be at least two varied Muslim movements vying for control – the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, a strict Islamic movement based in Saudi Arabia that has made inroads into Chechnya; and those who predominantly adhere to Sufism, Islam’s mystical movement.

Tens of thousands have been killed, maimed or displaced in this religious-based conflict.  The war phase had resumed as an active military campaign in 1999 after the Russians had left Chechnya in defeat in 1997, though the conflict itself has been going on much longer.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies reported in October, 2003 that even though the “war” had by that time ended, Russian forces sustained 4,749 casualties from August 2002 to August 2003, the highest 12 month figure since the current phase of that conflict began.

(Turkmenistan) Muslim/Orthodox versus other religions

Turkmenistan`s harsh new religion law specifically declares illegal all “unregistered religious activity”, while a new amendment to the criminal code prescribes penalties for breaking this law of up to one year of “corrective labor” and fines of up to 30 months’ wages.  Although the authorities have in recent years treated unregistered activity as illegal, this is the first time that such a provision has formally been incorporated into law.

Registration with the Justice Ministry requires 500 adult citizens living inside the country (Article B), a condition that is almost impossible for many religious communities to fulfill.  Such registration can be canceled by the Ministry or, if there has been “repeated or crude violations of the norms of the Constitution of Turkmenistan, the present law or other laws”, by a court (Article 14).  Among the wide range of bases for liquidating a religious organization through the courts are “interference in family relations leading to the breakdown of the family” and “violation of social security and social order”.  With only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities realistically being able to satisfy this registration process, the move has marked a considerable further step to repress minority faiths in this country.

This new law, which was signed by President Saparmurat Niyazov on October 21, 2003, replaced the earlier 1991 religion law.

The provision which apparently will have the most serious impact on believers is the criminalization of so-called unregistered religious activity (Article 11).

Since they are “unregistered” religions, all Shia Muslims, Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Armenian Apostolic, Lutheran, Baha’i and Jewish religious activity are treated as illegal.  Believers have been fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the country or deported in retaliation for involvement in unregistered religious activity.

These various conflicts continue.

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