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          MOSCOW

Religion plays a prominent role in the public and spiritual life of Russia.
The majority of believers belong to the Orthodox Christian denomination.
Russia adopted Christianity under Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 988, in a ceremony patterned on Byzantine rites. Russia's baptism laid the foundations for the rise of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russia had 150 Roman Catholic parishes, two theological seminaries and an academy before the revolution of 1917. All were suppressed in the Soviet years, and the believers -- ethnic Lithuanians, Poles and Gennans -- were banished and seattered about Siberia and Central Asia. 83 communities have reappeared by now, and Apostolic Administrations linked to the Vatican have been established in Moscow for European Russia, and in Novosibirsk for Siberia. There are four bishops and 165 priests working among the approximately 1,300,000 Catholics in the country. The theological seminary, Mary Oueen of the Apostles, opened in Moscow in 1993 and was transferred to St. Petersburg in 1995.

The two million Protestants have 1,150 communities.

The nineteen million Muslims, the second largest religious community in Russia, have over 800 parishes and mosques, mostly in Bashkortostan, Daghestan, Kabarda-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Tatarstan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya. The Muslim Board for Central European region has been re-established. The Moscow Muftiyat, an independent ecclesiastical body, is responsible for the Moscow, Vladimir, Ivanovo, Kostroma, Tula, Tver, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, Yaroslavl and Kaliningrad regions, and Sochi, the renowned seaside resort in the Krasnodar Territory.

Buddhism is widespread in Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva, and the Irkutsk and Chits regions. The Russian Federation currently has ten datsan monasteries, with the total monastic body approaching 200. Another ten monasteries are under construction.

The Russian Federation has 42 Jewish communities. Moscow accounts for over 10 per cent of Russian Jews, and has three synagogues, one of which is Hasidic.

 

Jews in Russia, Birobidzhan

In 1934 the Soviet Government established the Jewish Autonomous Region, popularly known as Birobidzhan, in a sparsely populated area some five thousand miles east of Moscow, close to the Chinese border. Designated as the national homeland of Soviet Jewry, Birobidzhan was part of the Kremlin's effort to create an alternative to Palestine.

After the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power, most of the 2.5 million Jews living in Russia resided in small towns and cities within the Pale of Settlement, and made their livings from petty trade, small-scale handicraft production, and unskilled labor. Jews were hard hit by the collapse of the economy due to the combined impact of world war, revolution, civil war, and pogroms (acts of anti-Jewish violence) between 1914 and 1921.

In 1928 the region known as Birobidzhan was designated the official territory for Jewish land colonization. The mostly marshy territory had been annexed by Russia in 1858. Summers are hot and rainy, winters cold and dry. Some 27,000 Russians, Cossacks, Koreans, and Ukrainians were already living in the region when Jewish settlement began.

The Kremlin selected this particular territory for the following reasons:
- To redirect the movement of Jews to the land away from Ukraine, Belarus and Crimea where the native populaces resisted Jewish settlement.
- To buffer the Soviet Union from Chinese and Japanese expansionism.
- To tap natural resources, such as fish, timber, iron, tin, graphite and gold.

The Kremlin granted autonomous administrative status to the Birobidzhan region in 1934, when it was designated the Jewish Autonomous Region. The decision signaled the government's official recognition of the area as the national territory of Soviet Jewry. Supporters of the Soviet Union hailed the formation of the J.A.R. as a sign of the freedom and rights enjoyed by Jews under communism.

In the forties Stalin had enough of his experiment and his terror also reached Birobidzhan. Yiddish schools, synagogues, libraries, theaters and media were closed or destroyed. The political and cultural elite disappeared into the camps or was killed.

There are about 4500 Jews living in Birobidzhan region, a fraction of the total population of 200,000. Yet over the past five years three hundred Russian Jews returned from Israel . (Info: 2007) Their motivation for return is not unambiguous. Some lacked the language and spirituality of Russia, others missed their dachas or had expected more from Israel.

 

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