November 19 (ENI)—Churches and ecumenical organizations have expressed deep concern for the plight of Chechnya's civilian population as Russia continues its massive campaign to suppress what it describes as the terrorist threat from the mainly Muslim republic.

At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church, the church closest to the conflict, has endorsed the Russian government's military campaign in Chechnya. The church's leader, Patriarch Alexei II, said that his church supported the "anti-terrorist aims" of the Russian state authorities. But he also called on the authorities to "pay exceptional attention to the needs of the civilians".

The virulence of Russia's campaign—which is aimed at putting a stop to a conflict that has caused Moscow major problems over the past few years—has prompted criticisms from Western governments and international organizations, especially regarding the treatment of tens of thousands of civilians who are fleeing the military action in Chechnya.

"Profound concern" at the Russian intervention was expressed in a joint statement released on 16 November by two major ecumenical organizations in Geneva, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

According to the statement, the general secretaries of the WCC and of CEC have written to Patriarch Alexei, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, deploring "the disproportionate and irresponsible use of force employed by the Russian military forces, which is contributing to a humanitarian crisis of the utmost seriousness". (The Russian Orthodox Church, which plays a key role in public life in Russia, is the biggest member church of both the WCC and CEC.)

In their letter, the two general secretaries "acknowledge with gratitude" a statement by Patriarch Alexei on November 12, and appeal to him "and to the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to do everything in your authority to enable unimpeded and secure international humanitarian assistance to be brought to those uprooted by this conflict, and to promote a peaceful resolution of the crisis".

The letter states that "the CEC and WCC recognise the context of lawlessness and terrorism which has preceded the current armed intervention by the Russian armed forces. We remember the many victims of terrorist acts, kidnapping and executions in Chechnya, including a number of Christian pastors and workers.

"However, we raise our voices that even legitimate political or military objectives cannot justify the innocent victims and suffering of peoples in the region. We deplore the disproportionate and irresponsible use of force employed by the Russian military forces, which is contributing to a humanitarian crisis of the utmost seriousness. We appeal to the Russian and Chechen political authorities, and to the combatants on all sides, to manifest mercy to all people, especially the civilian population, the prisoners and the wounded."

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The patriarch's own statement, issued in Moscow, calls for protection to be given to innocent civilians. "I consider it extremely important," Patriarch Alexei stated, "to ensure that civilians - first of all those who have proved their non-participation in the lawlessness perpetrated and refused unequivocally to support the bandits and terrorists - should not become victims in the struggle with the criminals. This demands that the army should show an attitude of high responsibility in choosing the means and ways of conducting their military operations and that all the authorities should pay exceptional attention to the needs of the civilians, especially the forced re-settlers who have found themselves on the verge of survival."

However the patriarch also firmly declares his church's support for Moscow's military action. "Orthodox Christians cannot reconcile themselves with sin and lawlessness. What happened and is still happening in Chechnya, namely hijacking of hundreds of people, including Orthodox and Muslim clergy, murder, torture, oppression of innocent civilians and rampant crime, cannot be left without a response. Attempts to spread the wave of terrorism to neighboring regions and all Russia also need to be firmly opposed.

"In view of this," the patriarch said, "the Russian Orthodox Church supports the anti-terrorist aims that the Russian state authorities have set before the army and the law-enforcement [authorities]. It has become evident today that the political settlement of the Chechen problem is impossible without restoration of law and order … murderers, perpetrators of violence and terrorists should be stopped."

The patriarch also stated: "We make a special appeal to the Muslims both in the armed conflict region and throughout Russia. For centuries we have lived and will always live together. Let no one divide us today, for we have a common goal, which is the spiritual revival of our country and the building of its life according to age-old moral norms. The people of Chechnya have the right to choose their destiny. After peace and tranquillity is established in the republic, the federal authorities should enter into dialogue with its elders, religious leaders and elected representatives in order to prevent any new aggravation of the crisis and to reach mutually acceptable decisions. In the meantime, everything should be done to stop the suffering of the civilians, to help the sick, the wounded and the hungry and those who have left their homes and lost shelter."

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Andrei Zolotov, ENI's Moscow correspondent, reports that a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church said there was as yet no official church reaction to the letter from the WCC and CEC. However, the spokesman thanked the organizations for the support that they had given in their letter to the Russian church. "We understand the concern with the situation," the spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, told ENI, apparently referring to the stress in the Geneva letter on concern over Russia's military tactics. "Of course, one can give different assessments of what kind of use of force would be adequate and proportional in this case. But it is impossible to disagree with the concern for the plight of civilians, including the forced migrants."

Chaplin also pointed out that the issue of Chechnya had been discussed at a meeting this week in Norway of international church leaders, including representatives of the Russian church. The meeting had been called to discuss the situation in Kosovo. However, a statement released at the end of the meeting also referred to "great concern" about developments in the Northern Caucasus region, "where civilians are becoming victims of military intervention".

"While fully understanding the necessity to overcome terrorism, we urge all parties involved in the conflict to ensure that the civilian population is not victimized and that the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] code of conduct of 1994 is fully respected, and to do everything possible to bring the conflict to a peaceful solution," declared the statement, which was released in Geneva by CEC. Frauke Brauns, ENI's correspondent in Germany, reports that the synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Germany's biggest Protestant organization, has expressed deep concern about the conflict in Chechnya, warning of the danger of the "extermination of an entire people".

The synod, which met in the east German city of Leipzig from 7 to 12 November, called on Germany's political leaders to use "every possibility at the international level to bring an immediate end to the military conflict in Chechnya".

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Bishop Rolf Koppe, who is head of the EKD's foreign affairs department, told ENI that the EKD had been in contact with Patriarch Alexei concerning the situation in Chechnya. Shortly after Russia started its bombing campaign, the patriarch had pointed out that the conflict in Chechnya was not a religious war. "Muslims and Christians have been living together in peace for centuries," the patriarch had informed the German church.

Action by Churches Together (ACT), an international ecumenical emergency aid network of churches and aid agencies, supported by the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, has issued appeals for US$2 million to assist those affected by the Chechen conflict. Working with local partner organizations, ACT is delivering food, shelter and clothes and offering basic medical assistance to more than 40 000 people.

The gathering of European church leaders in Norway has called for continued international support for the situation in Kosovo, warning that "large parts of Kosovo and also other parts of Yugoslavia have been devastated" and that "hundreds of thousands of people have become refugees or internally displaced people", Stephen Brown writes in Geneva. The consultation, was organised by CEC, the WCC and other organizations, in consultation with the Serbian Orthodox Church. "The NATO bombing did not bring an end to human suffering in the area. It contributed to the humanitarian disaster and had devastating effects on the environment. One group of victims was replaced by another. The results of the military intervention show that this kind of action is not what is required to solve complex conflicts such as this one. As churches, we are committed to peace and reconciliation. If more resources and energy had been used as part of a long-term strategy in conflict prevention, military action could have been avoided. Such a strategy is less costly, saves human lives and helps build a culture of peace and friendly coexistence," the consultation declared.

Related Elsewhere

Paul Steeves, professor of history at Stetson University, maintains an excellent site about news on religion in Russia. He's tracking this story and many others.