Russians talk religion online in increasing numbers
The dominant religion in Russia is Orthodox Christianity, which has quite an austere and conservative religious philosophy. Orthodox church governing body likes to see rules obeyed, and followers stick to the church’s centuries-old traditions. As such, when it comes to religion in Russia, innovations are slow to take hold.
But now it seems social networking sites get more and more Russians talking openly about their faith online. People flock to websites such as http://sobornoedelo.ru/ and http://miryane.ru/ in great numbers to chat with fellow parish goers, arrange meet-ups and socials, private message, exchange photos and even watch video logs of sermons.
Surprisingly, Russian Orthodox clerics not only support the online church community effort, but actively participate in the discussions themselves. In the times when church attendance numbers are on the decline, garnering online interest is the next best alternative for Orthodox Church in Russia. It is also a way for the clerics to moderate website content and make sure the discussions are informed and conform with Christian values.
Russia’s Muslim population is also very present online at http://islam.ru/. Islamic women are more active than man in mediating discussions and encouraging a sense of religious community.
Believers from all over Russia get engaged in debates, find lost pilgrimage companions and even form relationships using a variety of internet services, like the Sobornoedelo.ru social networking site.
The project was launched in the summer of 2008, giving Orthodox Christians an opportunity to share photos, send messages and find people from their own parish.
The site is closely monitored and censored by clerics to ensure moral dignity and conformity with Christian values. Since its launch, the website has gained 1100 members, but that number is predicted to grow over the next few months.
Clerics' blogs are, naturally, individual. Nevertheless, all of them note a necessity to express values and beliefs congruent with those of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to blogging clerics, the Church is not an institution where people can say whatever they want. Advice, on the other hand, is always gladly given.
However, religious sacraments still cannot be conducted virtually. Most clerics, in line with the Orthodox Christian faith, are opposed to the very notion of confessions or services online. They believe the sacraments are designed to be a living connection between a person and God, through a cleric as a mediator. For example, a project designed to recreate an Orthodox religious service was heavily criticised in 2006 and eventually shut down.
Nevertheless, the head of the press service of the Moscow patriarchy, Vladimir Vigilyansky, thinks that the outpour of religion on the internet is beneficial as a general rule.
"Missionary activity in any medium is good," he said.
According to Vigilyansky, there are currently around 500 blogging clerics in Russia, 60-70 of whom are currently "extremely active"
The phenomenon of "religious internet" is not confined to Orthodoxy. Russia is a country which counts over 20 million Muslims who live in vibrant communities which, quite naturally, find a place within the Russian cyberspace.
Islam.ru is a social network website which allows Muslims all over Russia to create email accounts, share experiences and sign up to a virtual matrimonial agency. It also has closed forums and sections designed specifically for Muslim women.
The man behind the site, Abdullah Rinat Muhametov, says that Muslim women are more active on the internet than men. They help each other solve legal and medical problems, set up help networks and establish counselling services.
Unlike their Orthodox counterparts, Imams do not often read blogs.
"Being people of mature age, shaped during the Soviet era, they are often not on friendly terms with computers,” explained Muhametov.
However, Shamil Alyautdinov, a relatively new face in the blogosphere, is a pioneer imam with his own journal-based website. He posts theological essays and video logs of his sermons.