Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karachai-Cherkessia: Church Ownership Row

Local people in the North Caucasian republic are resisting plans for the Russian Orthodox Church to take over ancient churches.
By Akhmat Ebzeyev

A 10th-century church at Lower Arkhyz

A bitter controversy has raged for the past three months in the autonomous republic of Karachai-Cherkessia about the ownership of a group of mountain churches that are more than a millennium old.


History, religion and ethnic pride are all at stake. In the latest round in the war of words, Umar Elkanov, director of the museum which currently oversees the churches, accused the Orthodox authorities in an October 16 newspaper interview of doing immense damage to the churches in question in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Elkhanov told IWPR in an interview that in the Lower Arkhyz region, at the centre of the controversy, the Orthodox Church had dismantled eleven out of 14 ancient churches to use to construct a monastery and other buildings.


The row began on July 17, when Feofan, the recently appointed bishop of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, told a press conference that the entire Lower Arkyz historic site, complete with its 10th century churches, should be given to the Orthodox Church. Feofan said he wanted to rebuild the monastery constructed in the 19th century there.


There are five domed churches involved - Shoana, Senty and three at Lower Arkyz - all of them built in a Byzantine style during the era of the Alan kingdom, which was believed to be the first Christian state on Russian territory in the early 900s and very probably therefore the oldest churches in Russia. All are situated high in the foothills of the Caucasus. Currently, they are historical monuments, looked after by a local museum, and under federal jurisdiction.


The Karachai and Balkar ethnic groups to the west and the Ossetians to the east consider themselves to be the descendants of the Alans. In the 17th century, the Karachai and Balkars began to convert to Islam. But they believe their historic and cultural claim is greater than that of the Orthodox Church, which arrived in the region only in the 19th century.


"The very concept of 'return' is inappropriate as applied to Alan churches," said Elkanov. "This is because they are Alan churches - in other words they are the historical and cultural legacy of the ancestors of the Karachai, Balkars and Ossetians, but not the Russian Orthodox Church. And the fact that these churches are Christian is no reason for them to be given to the Russian Orthodox Church."


The Orthodox Church had ownership of the churches before the October Revolution and first staked its claim to repossess them in 1990. Orthodox Christian Cossacks argued that Muslims had no right to the churches. Museum director Elkanov even survived an assassination attempt in 1991.


Five years later, in 1996, the former head of the Stavropol diocese, Metropolitan Gedeon, raised the topic again. The former president of Karachai-Cherkessia, Vladimir Semyonov, even signed a decree handing the churches over, but it was never carried out and, in the face of strong popular opposition, the metropolitan abandoned his plans.


The resurgence of the row has coincided with the defeat of Semyonov in presidential elections by Mustafa Batdyev in August.


Bishop Feofan immediately aroused controversy with allegations that the churches were being shamefully neglected.


"I have lived a long time abroad and visited the best museums of the world but I have never encountered such barbaric treatment of cultural and historical monuments," he said. "Sheep are grazing in holy places and vandals are removing stones from the main churches."


The official in charge of the churches, Ali Bairamukhov, rejected this accusation flatly, saying that they were in a protected zone, where even people did not have unrestricted access. He pointed out that several thousand Christian worshippers and pilgrims visit the churches a year.


The argument has stirred passions in the republic, with the majority of opinion firmly against handing over the five churches. Ali-Khasan Akbaev, acting editor of the largest newspaper in Karachai-Cherkesiya, Express-Pochta, argues that, even as Muslims, the Karachais were always careful to preserve the churches and should be allowed to continue to do so.


"For Karachais, these churches are as sacred as the Great Wall of China is for the Chinese, the Wailing Wall for the Jews, or the pyramids for the Egyptians," he said.


Many of the large ethnic Russian population in the republic by contrast support the position of the Orthodox Church.


Oleg Cherkasov, a young student, who said he was Orthodox, argued, "The Karachais are Muslims. To my mind they don't need these churches except as some kind of memorial to the past. I think it would be better to give them to the church. Why do they need them?"


Political analyst Rashid Khatuev said he feared that if the row continued it could have a destabilising impact on Karachai-Cherkessia, one of Russia's most multi-ethnic regions.


"It was only with great effort that the federal centre defused fights between activists of the Karachai and Cossack movements, which shook the region in 1990-1996," he said. "Any careless movement in the sphere of inter-ethnic relations may revive radical forces. The transfer of Alan churches to the Russian Orthodox Church could detonate this again."


A leading professor in the republic, Ismail Aliev, has proposed that the churches should be put under the aegis of UNESCO.


Akmat Ebzeev is an IWPR contributor in Cherkessk.