Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been a vocal critic of U.S. plans to intervene in the affairs of Syria, an ally of Russia, and home to a Russian naval base - Russia's last remaining military facility outside the former Soviet Union.
Though religious connections between Russia and Syria are not central to the dispute, several commentators have noted the connection between faith communities in the two countries. Though Syria is predominantly Muslim, it has a substantial number of people belonging to the Christian Orthodox Church, the majority faith of Russia, and a church with considerable influence in the government. Walter Russell Mead notes in a recent blog post:
Russia’s concern for Syrian Christians is also nothing new. Although the Communists were more interested in hounding and enslaving religious believers than protecting them, under the czars Russia was officially recognized by the Ottoman sultans as the protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the Turkish empire. In the 18th and 19th century Russian concern for these Christians (married to a concern for its geopolitical ambitions) frequently shaped Russian policy towards the Ottomans and the West. The Crimean War at one point brought Russia into war with Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire over a quarrel between Russia and France over their rights to represent and protect Ottoman Christians in the Holy Land.
1. Straddling Europe and Asia, Russia could be considered the most populous Christian-majority country on both continents.
Byzantine monks first introduced Christianity into Russia in the 9th century. Following his baptism in 988, Vladimir I, the prince of Kiev, led his people into Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox Church has remained the largest religious institution in Russia despite monumental changes in the country’s political system, from monarchy, to Soviet communism, to the current parliamentary and presidential system. Today, a little more than 70% of Russia’s population identifies as Orthodox.
While Orthodox Christianity is still the dominant religion in Russia, other Christian traditions have grown in recent decades. Outside of the Orthodox Church, Protestants constitute the largest Christian group, with nearly 3 million adherents. A large segment of the Russian population does not identify as Christian, including many who are unaffiliated with any particular religion. According to a 2011 Pew Forum report, Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe (in absolute numbers).
2. Russia has the largest Muslim population in absolute numbers in all of Europe.
The growth rate for the Muslim population in the Russian Federation is projected to be 0.6% annually over the next two decades. By contrast, Russia’s non-Muslim population is expected to shrink by an average of 0.6% annually over the same 20-year period.
Several factors contribute to the projected growth of Russia’s Muslim population. For instance, Muslim women generally have more children than other women in Russia (an estimated 2.3 children per woman, compared with a national average of fewer than 1.5 children per woman). Higher Muslim fertility is directly related to the fact that Muslim women marry in larger numbers and divorce less often than other women in Russia. This means they spend longer periods of their lives in unions where childbearing is more likely. And although the abortion rate in Russia is still among the highest in the world, research suggests that Muslim women have fewer abortions on average than other women in Russia.
On the older end of the age spectrum, about 27% of Russia’s Muslims are age 45 and older, compared with about 38% of ethnic Russians. And 13.1% of Muslims in Russia are age 60 and older, compared with nearly a fifth of the ethnic Russian population (19.1%).
The Muslim population in Russia is geographically concentrated in a few regions. As of 2009, four-in-five Muslims in Russia resided in two of the seven federal districts, the Volga and Southern districts. Among the 89 sub-regions of Russia in 2009, Muslims were concentrated in five traditionally Muslim homelands: Dagestan (16.3% of all Muslims), Bashkortostan (14.6%), Tatarstan (13.5%), Chechnya (7.4%) and Kabardino- Balkaria (4.7%). Smaller numbers of Muslims lived in three other Muslim homelands: Ingushetia (3.0% of all Muslims), Karachaevo-Cherkessia (1.9%) and Adygea (0.8%). Altogether, about two-thirds of all Muslims in Russia (62.3%) resided in one of the traditionally Muslim homelands.
Moscow has become a migration magnet for people from elsewhere in Russia, as well as beyond Russia. More than 600,000 Muslims reside in Moscow (3.7% of all Muslims in Russia) and an additional 517,000 live in the oil-rich Tyumen region (3.0%), which borders Kazakhstan to the south.
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