—Fr. Nazary, you grew up in a Muslim environment, and today you are a priest in a large church in Moscow and a Master of Theology. Could you have ever imagined that life would make such a serious turn and the Lord would call you to the priestly ministry?
—No, I certainly couldn’t have imagined that. It seems that only God knows our future. As Solomon teaches in his book: There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand (Prov. 19:21). Like every child and young man, I had my own dreams and goals, such as becoming a doctor, a geography teacher, or a police officer. I realized my dream of becoming a policeman after the army; however, after serving in the police force for four years I realized that it was not my calling; I was destined for something else. Therefore, in answer to your question, I will say again: I did not expect that, but I did foresee it intuitively.
—The conversion to another faith is always painful for representatives of the religion you have left. In addition to the Lives of the saints, there are also modern stories when parents literally took the lives of their children who had converted to Orthodoxy. There are examples when converts were renounced by their own families. How did your family react to your Baptism?
—Yes, you are right. Of course, there are many such cases. In my family, my father’s initial reaction was painful, and we were not on speaking terms for two years. I could understand him, because he was very worried about me and my future (for example, how his relatives and friends would treat me in the future). My father comes from a large family, and all of them are Muslims to this day. Moreover, I am the eldest son in my family and the eldest grandchild, so I was always in the spotlight. Then fortunately I made up with my father, and he accepted me. Of course, now there is some misunderstanding with some of my distant relatives, but they are slowly beginning to understand and accept me. Besides my relatives, my Muslim friends and acquaintances began to distance themselves from me, but new Orthodox friends appeared. In general, I think that I am unworthy of comparing my life with those of the saints and people who lost their lives and suffered for Christ for the confession of their faith. Why unworthy? Because I didn’t grow up in a fully-fledged Muslim family, since only my father is a Muslim, while my mother was a Catholic at that time (later she converted to Orthodoxy and was baptized with the name Anna). Therefore, both my father and my Muslim acquaintances did not think that I had betrayed my faith, but decided that I was drawn to my mother’s religion, although she was a Catholic at that time. This to some extent facilitated and alleviated the situation. Moreover, as reasonable people they understood and still understand that every person has the right to make choices. Another circumstance improved the situation: when I converted to Orthodoxy I had just reached the age of majority, so as an adult I had the right to embrace a religion that I had come to love. Although I agree with you: such people are not always so lucky…
—Do you remember the moment when you decided to become a Christian? Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh recalled how while reading the Gospel, he suddenly understood, saw, and realized that Christ was standing in his room. How was it with you?
—I was baptized when I was eighteen. Before that I had studied the Islamic Shiite doctrine and prayed according to that teaching. When I was seventeen, I recalled how as a child I watched a movie about Jesus Christ on TV with my mother and how she had showed me Catholic pictures of the Savior. It later turned out that the film was called “Bible Stories: Jesus”. I tried to find that film, and a seller of video cassettes, a Muslim, advised me to watch Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. I was astounded by Jesus Christ. This film is about the last twelve hours of the Savior’s life, so after watching it I had a strong desire to know everything about Him, from His Birth to His death and Resurrection. Perhaps this was the turning point in my life, because literally a day later my brother found a copy of the New Testament, which had been thrown away by someone and had been lying on the road, wet and dirty. I read it and decided to study the entire Bible secretly. In order to read the books of the Old Testament I had to spend a great deal of time in the library’s reading room, since I did not have my own Bible. Those were some the brightest and most memorable days of my life.
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After reading this great book, the Bible, I decided to connect my life with Christ. And I began to look for a church where they could explain to me the Christian teaching in more detail and then baptize me. I came to an Orthodox church and talked with a priest there, but for a long time I could not understand and decide which Christian denomination I should choose. Once I started studying the Christian faith, Pentecostals, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately appeared around me; I even talked to a Catholic priest. They all seemed kind and good to me. But I still couldn’t decide who to be with. Unfortunately, the main impetus was my illness, or rather, a suspected serious disease. I had tests done, and the doctors told me to come back three days later for the results. To be honest, I was very scared. Then, as I remember now, I entered an Orthodox church, which was the closest to my home, found an icon of Jesus Christ (as I later found out, it was that of the Savior, “Not-Made-by-Hands”), prayed to the Lord, and then uttered something like a promise: “Lord, if the test results are negative, then I promise to embrace the Orthodox faith.” When I came to the doctor three days later, I heard that I had a mere allergy. I was filled with joy, and three days later I was baptized with the name Nazary.
—They say that when a neophyte appears in a family, the other family members become martyrs. How can we avoid starting a forced “catechism” of your close ones at home and not fall into excessive religious exaltation?
—It doesn’t always happen that way. Most importantly, we must be models for our family members; not only for our families, but for all people around us. In the Gospel we read the following wonderful words: Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven (Mt. 5:14–16). I believe that every neophyte should be guided by these words of the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, a neophyte should not start reading akathists like crazy or read only books about holy elders or monastic life, which were originally written exclusively for monastics, so as not to fall into delusion. It would be wise to start your spiritual life by studying the Holy Scriptures, Patristic commentaries on Biblical books, the basics of Orthodoxy, and finding a translation of the Creed in your native language with explanations for it.
Neophytes should read prayers and canons with parallel translations in order to understand the meaning of prayers, learn how to fast correctly, try to study God’s commandments and learn to live according to them, etc. Unfortunately, you can often hear that someone who has never read the Holy Scriptures and commentaries begins by reading only akathists and canons even without understanding the meaning of some words. Or he says many Jesus Prayers quickly and without attention, fasts only outwardly as if fasts were mere diets, while insulting his relatives and friends who look at him as at a model of spiritual life. The Holy Fathers teach that if we keep a bodily fast, we must also fast spiritually; without attention during prayer there is no prayer. For example, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov taught: “The soul of prayer is attention.” A person who lives in the world should read books of the Holy Fathers who wrote for the laity. If this rule is not followed, then both the neophyte and his relatives suffer.
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—You are the author of two books in which you clearly trace the parallels and differences between the Koran and the Bible. What was your goal? Was it to build a bridge between these two religions and remove the tension that reigns in our troubled world?
—Yes and no. First of all, I would like to say that the books were dedicated to people very dear and close to me. The first book, A Man in Two Hearts, is dedicated to my dear father; and the second, Christ in Two Hearts—to my dear brother. The main goal was a comparative theological analysis of the teaching about man and Jesus Christ in these two world religions, the results of which can be used in prospective dialogue with and enlightenment of Muslims. This is a comparison of two world religions that will help us all look at each other from a different perspective. The relations between the Muslim world and Christendom are sometimes difficult and changeable. Much of this is due to mutual misunderstanding. The development of Christian-Islamic dialogue can bring excellent results: mutual respect and understanding between representatives of the two world religions. This can become the basis for our multifaceted cooperation. The dialogue between Christians and Muslims, the search for a means of peaceful coexistence, the desire for moral change in both parties and a change in the confrontational methodology of communication are so important in our time that any constructive proposals, studies and projects in this sphere are of genuine interest to both parties. This is why my books are relevant—because in the process of the many discussions between representatives of both religions, questions about God, about worship of God, and about man can cause misunderstandings and create a conflict situation. I believe that if we manage to find common ground in the contact between the two world religions, then in the future we will at the least avoid misunderstanding and, at the most, conflicts arising from it.
—Can religions coexist in the world, or are wars inevitable?
—If by religions you mean Islam and Christianity, then it is worth noting here that Islam, starting from the first centuries of its existence, was in close contact with Christianity. And this was accompanied not only by armed confrontations, but also by polemical writings and a theological dialogue. It should be said that an interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims is possible. And where there is dialogue, peace is always possible. And if we take Russia (in contrast to the whole world), it is in a very select company of multinational states whose ethnic groups adhere to different religions, but at the same time do not wage religious wars. Moreover, representatives of various religious communities have lived and still live side by side in our country. They worked together and defended the same Motherland, while firmly standing in the faith of their forefathers, together protecting it from outside encroachments. Another question is how we, Orthodox Christians, should behave.
In my books I emphasize that a missionary approach on the part of the Orthodox community should be based on friendly dialogue and persuasion. Orthodoxy is a religion of love, and inter-religious relations should be based on peace, love and tolerance. For example, the Apostle Paul said these words: If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men (Rom. 12:18). Therefore, the preaching of an Orthodox Christian should be quiet and peaceful; it should be the expression of his love for God and people, which testifies to the purity of his Christian life. At the same time, every Orthodox must learn to see in someone else’s religion not only negative, but also positive aspects, as the Holy Fathers were able to do. I provide examples in my books.
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—Why did you choose Sretensky Seminary when looking for an educational institution?
—There was a Bible club in the church of our native city, run by a priest. He advised me to enter Sretensky Theological Seminary, because he considered it the best. And he was right.
—What stuck in your memory over the years of your studies? After all, this is a rather long period of life—the foundation of the future pastoral ministry is laid here and new friends appear…
—Yes, that’s right. I studied at Sretensky Seminary for six years: four years for a bachelor’s degree and two years for a master’s degree. And those years were the most useful, memorable and the brightest for me. The Lord in the Gospel says such wonderful words: Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness (Mt. 6:33). For me the seminary became precisely the place that helped me find this truth, which, unfortunately, is very hard to find nowadays. At Sretensky Seminary I found friends and brothers in faith, and met wonderful teachers who with their experience and life examples contributed to the strengthening of my spiritual life.
—You said of yourself that you are a withdrawn person. But a priest is someone whom everyone needs, and he often has no private space… How do you manage to rebuild yourself?
—You are right. I am withdrawn as a person, but not as a priest. What do I mean? I don’t like to talk a lot about myself, share and brag about my personal experience, to be in the media space, etc. Moreover, this is my first interview where I am talking about my personal life. Also, to be honest, I never liked such questions as: “How and when did you come to Christ?” I believe that none of us can say for sure that he “came to Christ”. We can say that we are walking towards Christ, but to say that I have come to Christ would be arrogance on my part. At any moment your faith can be tested, and God alone knows how it will stand. Judas Iscariot and the great Apostle Peter followed Christ for three and a half years, saw His miracles, heard His preaching, and then betrayed and renounced Christ, although the latter repented. Who am I to talk about my “coming to Christ” or share my personal experience?
As a priest I am open to everyone. Through the Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition I can share with people the spiritual experience of great ascetics, pastors, theologians, etc. I try to speak to people not from myself, but as the Holy Church teaches.
—The church at MSIIR is in the center of attention: a large church where media personalities pray and where the rector is in demand in the media… Is this a distinctive feature that one needs to get used to?
—Indeed, we have a wonderful church and rector, Archpriest Igor Fomin, as well as clergy. It seems that we are all different, but everyone knows his place, his business, and everyone has his own gifts. The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind: Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all (1 Cor. 12: 4-6). As for media personalities, this is not surprising; they are human beings like everyone else. And our task is to guide everyone to Christ without regard for rank, and help people attain salvation and reach the Kingdom of Heaven.