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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church: Army Needs God

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, warning that the armed forces here are in a deep spiritual crisis, called Thursday for chaplains to be reintroduced into the military for the first time since 1917.

"A spiritual void that is weakening morale has taken shape in the armed forces", Alexei II told a conference of about 600 Russian officers and 50 Western chaplains and other officers. Manv in the military feel spiritually empty, isolated from society and the spiritual life of its people".

During the conference on spiritual and moral problems in the military, American generals and colonels, many of them Christians by belief, rubbed shoulders with their former Cold War enemies, some of whom still wear the medals of the atheistic Soviet state.

The patriarch said that lack of an ideological anchor is leading Russia's soldiers to sin, making drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and crime common problems in today's force. The church, he said, holds the key to dealing with many of these problems.

"We aspire to bring alive the spiritual and educational work of the church in the army", the patriarch said. "Certainly we would like to see the institutes of military and navy chaplains restored in the nearest future".

Several Russian officers at the conference said that they did not oppose the idea of military chaplains but that the country was not ready for them.

"We threw out Marxism from our consciousness but we still haven't filled that space yet", said Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Starokon. "I don't think we've yet reached an understanding of why chaplains are necessary".

The Russian organizer of the conference, Lieutenant General Oleg Zolotaryov, said however that religion would undoubtedly help the military.

"We have to find ways out of this spiritual emptiness in the army", said Zolotaryov. "I see spiritual and religious training -- Christian religious training -- as one of the most powerful solutions to spiritual renovation".

The head of the U. S. Army's chaplains, Major General Matthew Zimmerman, told the inheritors of the Red Army that a chaplain helps build a soldier's self-pride and dignity, which in turn helps the whole unit.

Zimmerman noted that his ancestors had been slaves and told the Russians that chaplains had helped forge the way in the struggle against racial injustice in the American military.

"We talk individual dignity and worth when we talk chaplaincy", he said.

In a lecture Wednesday, Major General Bernard Loeffke, an American commander who speaks fluent Russian, recalled episodes from his life that he said demonstrated the virtues of good Christian living.

Such open discussion of religion and individuality among Russia's officers is unusual, even amid the post-Communist freedoms of democratic Russia. As the Red Army before it, the Russian armed forces continue to focus on the collective rather than the individual.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Navigators, a Christian military group, and by two nonreligious groups, Peopleworks and Operation Helping Hand.