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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Frontline Priests Recruited to Raise Fighting Spirit

NOZHAI-YURT, Chechnya -- In the days of Soviet power, the Red Army had political commissars in practically every unit to make sure the soldiers obediently followed the Communist Party line, including atheism.

So Father Safrony's presence in the snow-capped mountains of Chechnya still seems a bit unusual. Dressed in a camouflage uniform and black knit cap, the Russian Orthodox priest is the chaplain to the Russian paratroopers who are fighting the Islamic Chechen rebels near the Chechen-Dagestani border here.

"Our main purpose is to raise the fighting spirit of the army and explain to the soldiers that they are performing an important duty," he said.

"We explain to them that they are real patriots. They are not just defending territory. They are defending our sacred Russian land."

In his military uniform, Father Safrony looks like any other soldier from a distance. Up close, his long hair and wispy beard give him away. He said he would never carry weapons as a priest, though Russian television has carried reports about one priest who fought with the troops and was wounded.

"An Orthodox priest never bears weapons," Father Safrony said.

"His weapon is his cross, his prayer and the words he delivers to the soldiers."

Certainly, the spirits of the army could use a little bolstering.

The deputy commander of the Russian forces in the Northern Caucasus, Lieutenant General Gennady Troshev, told reporters here Friday that the assault on Grozny had come to a virtual standstill. He pledged to step up the attack a few hours after his helicopter had been hit by fire from automatic weapons near Grozny.

Stationed in the Chechen highlands, the paratroopers are far removed from the bitter fighting in Grozny. But their mission is not always easy. They have encircled the nearby settlements of Nozhai-Yurt and Zamai-Yurt, so Interior Ministry troops can check each house for militants and arms.

At night, however, rebels creep toward them in small groups, firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the Russian command post before retreating to their mountain hideouts, using tactics familiar to Russian soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

Father Safrony is one of a number of chaplains dispatched here under an agreement between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Defense Ministry.

"I was a monk and was assigned to come here," Father Safrony said.

The priest, 36, said the airborne troops had set up a chapel dedicated to St. Alexander Nevsky, the Russian prince who defeated the Teutonic Knights at Pskov in the 13th century. And he sees himself as the heir to a proud pre-Soviet tradition.

"For ages, the Russian army had a priest in every unit," Father Safrony said.

"During the years of Soviet power, this practice was abolished. But the institution of the chaplaincy is coming back."

To be sure, many officers and soldiers are atheists, and the attitude of many of them toward the chaplains appears to be neutral at best. But the ties between the military and church have strengthened in recent years.

More than 100 churches and chapels have been established on Russian military bases. Russian draftees can request service in a unit that has a priest, though it is not always honored.

Even the Strategic Rocket Forces, which wield the nation's nuclear arsenal, has a patron saint, St. Barbara. Purely coincidentally, Nikita Khrushchev formally established the forces in 1960 on the saint's day.

Here in Nozhai-Yurt, Father Safrony's task is to comfort the soldiers and help them sort out personal problems, which are compounded by youth and long separation from home. Many of the words the priest says are exactly the ones the military command likes to hear.

"How can we not defend Russian land?" Father Safrony asked.

"There is power. There are borders. And there is the motherland. To strengthen the state, the army has to be strengthened, and there is no army without the spirit."