RUSSIA Persecution of folk religion in Altai

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Russian security services have targeted Ak Tyan or “White Faith”, a religious group at odds with local Buddhists. Neo-paganism raises fears of possible extremism. Young locals are increasingly fascinated by old religious beliefs.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Some ancient religious beliefs in southern Siberia continue to be persecuted by Russian local authorities and security services, a program aired on Radio Freedom (радио свобода) last Saturday.

The program focused on the popular religions of Altai, a republic in the Russian Federation bordering Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, where Buddhism is also practiced.

In 2018, the Ongudayskiy District Court characterized the unregistered Karakol initiative group as an extremist organization. The decision singled out certain religious practices, which many ethnic groups in Altai consider to be the “ancestor faith”, notably Ak Tyan or “White Faith”.

Since then, spiritual leaders and supporters of Ak Tyan (Aktyanite) have been investigated for proselytizing and disseminating extremist material, and further charges are awaited.

The radio show looked at the persecution of members of the white faith, who accuse local leaders of selling themselves to the international Buddhist movement Nipponzan-Myōhōji-Daisanga (Order of the Lotus Sutra).

Altai Buddhists are reportedly supported by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB[*]) against the protests of “White Faith” believers, a situation that echoed on social networks and various street actions.

The leader of the Lotus Sutra, the Japanese monk Junsei Terasawa, has been banned from entering Russia since the Second Chechen War (1999-2009) due to alleged contacts with Chechen separatists.

Buddhists argue that Ak Tyan is simply a variant of Buddhism, based on ethnographic theories of Buddhism as “popular Buddhism”.

In addition to the followers of Junsei, a more traditional Buddhism is present in the Altai region, such as the Karma Kagyu school, and other groups not badly received by the authorities.

Altai is a place of contact and contamination between various cultural and religious traditions that developed during the first and second of the great Turkish regimes, the Kyrgyz and Uyghur Khanates, following the empire of Genghis Khan.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dzungar (Zunghar) people founded a powerful nomadic empire in the region, subjugated in the 1750s by China after a bloody war.

Eventually, the heirs of these khanates fell under the rule of the Russian Empire, which called them the peoples of the Altai in the 19th century.

The Dzungar were Buddhists, which historians say was forcibly imposed on local shamanists, which is why Buddhism is locally considered the religion of the invaders.

In the post-communist religious revival, everything has been called into question; many “new believers” began to visit hard-to-get places, nicknamed the Armpits of Altai, where ancient pagans celebrated their rites and defended themselves against wars and plagues.

Buddhism and paganism are not alone. A Manichean version of Christianity has also spread here, which some claim to be the original religion of Genghis Khan himself.

Despite the persecution, the Ak Tyan of Karakol are destined to survive; in all probability their radicalism will increase, precisely because of the oppression which gives the new shamans the proof of their greater purity.

The “rebirth of paganism” in Asia, the pride of the peoples of the Altai, exerts a great fascination with the local youth.


[*] Main successor body to the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union, better known by the initials KGB.

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