CRGA Releases New Report: Religion in Today's Russia

Click on the image to download the report. The CRGA will release further data gathered and analysed during the research project but not included in detail in this report. 

Click on the image to download the report. The CRGA will release further data gathered and analysed during the research project but not included in detail in this report. 

The CRGA is pleased to release its new report;  "Exploring Religion in Today's Russia: An Analysis of Religion on Russian Social Media Platforms." The report brings together key findings from a survey of religious expressions on social media in Russia by analysing content on the three largest social media platforms in the nation (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki and Facebook). A brand new and unique methodology has been developed for both the research process and analysis. 

The first phase of the research consisted of scraping pages associated either with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) or Islam. This research has resulted in a snapshot of religious expressions on Russian social media.

— In total, 5,991 Orthodox pages were found with close to 21 million followers. In contrast, there were only 2,956 pages associated with Islam; however, these had a higher following, with 25.5 million individuals in total. A plausible explanation for the larger following of Muslim pages is that these have a greater international audience than Orthodox pages, which are more local and nationally focused. 

— Compared to ROC, the Islamic social media presence was more ‘centralised’ with a fewer number of pages but a greater number of ‘very large’ or ‘large’ pages. 

— The wide variety of topics covered on social media bears witness to the vitality and creativity of online religious activity in Russia. 

— It is interesting to note that over half of ROC pages (53%) were dedicated to local groups. A large proportion of Islamic pages (23%) were similarly linked to local religious communities. This suggests a high level of correlation between the digital world and offline activity. 

— By far the most prevalent function of Islamic pages was to discuss and disseminate scriptures, a feature nearly absent from ROC pages. 

— Unsurprisingly, ROC pages had a nationwide geographic spread,whereas Islamic pages were, as expected, more concentrated toSouth-Western Russia.

The project’s social network analysis allowed inferences to be made through observing how online religious communities, groups and individuals are connected and the sources of the content shared. 

— The findings of the network analysis suggest that the ROC and Islam exist in complete isolation from each other on social media. Interestingly, not a single connection between Russia’s largest religious communities’ social media activity was found. 

— The network of Islamic pages was divided into several different large clusters with few connections between them. This division partly runs along Sufi versus Wahhabi lines, with two large clusters dominated by preachers and institutions from the two respective schools. The largest cluster, however, contained ‘mixed content’ pages.

— A greater interconnectedness was found amongst ROC pages. Nevertheless, a few larger isolated clusters were identified, such as one focusing on the lives of martyrs and saintsand another on youth.

In the final phase of the research, a sample of 1,002 posts, and 1,700 images and videos from the social media scraping were decoded and analysed. Semiotic analysis of these offers a more detailed understanding of religious thought, practices and symbols in Russia. 

— Social media plays a significant role in maintaining and reinforcing the influence of both religious communities investigated in this research. This can be seen in a number of common themes including commitment to political entities, strengthening and maintaining traditions, safeguarding the nation/community against the weakening of moral values, promoting knowledge of the past, teaching of scriptures, reinforcing community cohesion through religious practices and affirming positive transformational aspects of religion.

— There were important differences between the Russian Orthodox and Muslim narratives online. Russian Orthodox Christian discourses were often inwardly focused (e.g. preservation and protection of Russian religion and culture), while Muslim discourse was much more outwardly focused (e.g. international Muslim brotherhood and helping fellow Muslims abroad).

— Political expressions were found to be the least prevalent category in the Russian religious landscape online. While ROC social media content is rife with nationalistic sentiments, explicit political expressions are relatively rare on religious social media in Russia.

— A considerable amount of content on ROC pages is given to expressing the idea of the role of Russian Orthodoxy as an integral part of Russian national life. The clergy are portrayed as maintaining communal life, saints as epitomising the Russian soul and church patrons as a bulwark against the nation’s enemies and so forth. Muslim patriotism was expressed through allegiance to regional identities and locations, such as Tatarstan.

— There is a near-complete rejection of the violence of Islamists on the three social media platforms included in the research. Conversely, there is a widespread call to give charitably to those suffering from war and to help Muslim brothers and sisters facing persecution. 

— A large proportion of the social media content discusses the mundane – such as food, online dating, requests for prayers and information about festive celebrations – rather than larger national, global or even philosophical issues. 

— One interesting point of difference is that whilst both religions reinforce traditional domestic gender roles, an emerging trend on Islamic pages is that women are increasingly portrayed as being assertive, rather than submissive.

— Social media plays an important educational role for both religions. Believers are introduced to their teachings, encouraged to live morally upright lives, engaged in theological debates and summoned to worship and prayer. 

— An emerging trend is the use of contemporary styled videos, new media platforms and innovative uses of technology to engage younger generations.

The research findings are complemented with essays written by leading academics on religion in Russia today. 

— Providing a brief sketch of religion in Russia, the first article highlights the resurgence of religion in the post-Soviet era, not least the cultural and societal prominence of the ROC.

— The second article. written by Russia expert Geraldine Fagan, seeks to counter-balance the overly harmonious portrayal of religion in Russio that emerged from the research by outlining some of the major lines of religious tensions.

— In the final article, Dr Moral Shterin discusses the place of the ROC in Russia’s foreign policy. During the Putin years Russian Orthodoxy has been mobilised os a ‘soft power’ expanding Russian cultural identity beyond its borders, not least through strengthening ties with diaspora communities. 

Kindly click on the picture above to download the report. We will shortly release further data gathered and analysed in the research process leading to this report. 

يسرّنا أن نطلق النسخة العربية من دراساتنا الرائدة : لاهوت الرجاء.

ثمة مسؤولية تقع على عاتق المسلمين واليهود والمسيحيين لتجديد العالم لكلّ الشعوب. اقرأ لماذا.

CRGA is thrilled to release the Arabic version of its ground breaking "Theologies of Hope" study, that includes essays by Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers offering a counter narrative to destructive extremism.  Download here

CRGA releases new report: Theologies of Hope

In February 2016, the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs (CRGA) held a consultation on Religion, Violence and Failed States in Beirut. The vision behind the conference was to explore the relationship between religion and violence in conflict zones. With some 35 delegates, we undertook a comparative analysis of Boko Haram, ISIS and Al Shabaab, looking at how they emerged, evolved and performed, as well as their claimed theologies and ideologies.

A key outcome of this comparison was the recognition that, unlike the common public debates, violent conflicts are not caused by religions. We noted that religions play a central role in providing meaning and order in a chaotic world, belonging and solidarity, and social and welfare support. We observed how central faith is to people’s lives, and how, while media attention focuses on extremists, many more are moved to help improve their communities because their faith gives them strength. It is also clear that religious individuals play key roles in peace building initiatives, caring for the poor and those in need.

It was agreed that extremists in all religions follow similar strategies: they point out the challenges and problems, they provide ill fated solutions, and they claim a better future. While most people simply want to challenge extremists by condemning their chosen strategies of violence, not many people seek to address the same issues extremists speak about, which is why they are able to mislead certain young people.

What we need are religious thinkers and activists focusing not on why such extremists are wrong, but rather, on Theologies of Hope to counter the theologies of war, exclusion, destruction, revolutions and macro political agendas. Such Theologies of Hope will not be about grand political revolutions, but will speak to the individual believer, to help them to see a light, a motivation and a reason to work towards betterment of this world, not just for themselves or people of their ethnicity, nation and religion, but for all.

In fact, such a message is not about defeating extremists. It is about shifting our energy to help a new generation of people of faith, grounded in their tradition and at home with their identities, making this world a better place. It is about helping them to realise that yes, the world is not a fair place and is full of problems, but they have a direct personal responsibility to do something meaningful about those problems.

Therefore, as CRGA, we have decided to bring a group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to look into their own faith traditions and provide a model of Theology of Hope for their own coreligionists. They were asked to provide answers to the following questions:

  1. How does your religious tradition read the world?

  2. What is the basis of hope in your faith?

  3. What are the grounds for personal responsibility?

  4. Why shouldn’t the person give up hope and continue?

The report include not only answers to these questions as building blocks of a theology of hope, but also demonstrate how rich religious traditions are and how central it is to provide meaning and hope in a seemingly out of control world is to them.

The implications of this approach are clear; rather than seeing religions merely as sources of conflict, there are more reasons to religions as powerful and constructive agents of change. Rather than spending our energies to refute extremists, it may be more meaningful to provide alternatives to the same questions they claim to be answering.

You can download the report here.

CRGA Launches New Programme

CRGA launches its new programme Beirut Conversations. Aim of the programme is to create a safe space for experts, politicians, diplomats, civil and faith society leaders in the Middle East and North Africa to discuss sensitive issues and propose new perspectives. It seeks to be a catalyst for change and provide a neutral platform for individuals with diverse backgrounds to meet and learn from each other.

Beirut Conversations are by-invitation-only events with an intentionally limited participation to 20 delegates. All discussions are made under full confidentiality. CRGA produces a page long summary of general themes discussed after each Beirut Conversation for a wider audience. Each Beirut Conversation is divided into two parts: better understanding, and reflections on solutions. 

Each year, CRGA will hold five Beirut Conversations each at an undisclosed location in Beirut. The first three Beirut Conversations for the remainder of this year are scheduled as: 

  • October 2016: Theologies of Hope: An Alternative to Extremist Ideologies?
  • December 2016: Do Western efforts to promote religious freedom help minorities?
  • March 2017: Are 'Western' and 'Eastern' values doomed to clash?
  • June 2017:  Good Governance and Religion; what role can faith actors play? 

If you or your organisation wish to be considered as a delegate, kindly get in touch with us with a description of your work and why you should be a participant. 


Consultation: Future of Religious Freedom Advocacy

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
— Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. It cannot be denied to an individual even in most extreme circumstances. However, we are witnessing a worrying trend of increasing persecution of individuals on the basis of their religions or beliefs, including atheism. As persecution evolves from being state oppression to abuses committed by non-state actors and local communities, human rights promotion and protection efforts on religious freedom are facing serious challenges in adopting to new conditions. 

On December 15, CRGA is gathering a group of 30 officials, NGO and faith leaders, and experts in London from UK, Kenya, Canada, USA, Ghana, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, and Turkey with Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Ahmadi, Baha'i, Mormon, Jewish and of no religious backgrounds. The day long consultation is to focus on current trends in key countries and issues, reflections on what kind of strategies to address them work or do not, and what type of advocacy needs to be pursued. The gathering is unique as it provides a neutral space both for officials who work on these issues as well as people who live in persecuted setting to come together and reflect with a desire to develop better solutions. 

While the discussions in the consultation are confidential, CRGA will release a general document summarising key points and proposals.