For more than a century, Moscow’s Muslims have found affirmation in their Cathedral Mosque, painted in a minty pastel so evocative of the city’s cherished old buildings, with a golden crescent high above, proclaiming their identity.
On Thursday, the mosque — built by Tatar Muslims who have lived in Russia for a thousand years — was a pile of splintered wood, shattered brick and billowing plaster.
The mosque was demolished last weekend, the official reason being that the 1904 building was badly deteriorated and heavy rains had made it so dangerous that it had to be destroyed before it collapsed and killed someone. But longtime Muscovites, Muslim and not, were unconvinced, saying it was a historic monument that should have been preserved at all costs.
Ravil Gainutdin, the chief mufti who works out of offices next door, shed no tears. Gainutdin heads the government-backed Spiritual Board of Muslims of the European Part of Russia, and recently he had been complaining that the mosque was not properly aligned with Mecca and that it had no historic value.
Farid Asadullin, chairman of the scientific and public department of the Council of Muftis, said houses of worship are destroyed all the time, pointing out that Moscow’s 1883 Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral was torn down in 1931 (by Stalin, who replaced it with a swimming pool) and then built anew in the 1990s.
“Renewal of a mosque is a natural process,” he said.
Little was heard outside the official religious structure until Thursday, when several Moscow Muslims and preservationists organized a news conference to mourn their loss. They had a hard time finding space but finally ended up in the attic of a marginalized political party, Yabloko, with mostly religious and ethnic media members in attendance.
“I am not such a believer,” said Adil Belayev, an elderly man with pure white hair who said some of his kin had helped build the mosque. “I don’t pray every day. But that was a holy place, and I felt it.”
The mosque was built despite czarist disapproval, and it withstood revolution and repression, said Mukhammyat Minachev, who is Muslim. “And now someone has demolished our memories,” he said.
Gayar Iskandyarov, an engineer and leader of the Foundation for the Development of the Muslim People, said the mosque had been a cultural center for Tatars, keeping their language and traditions alive even though they were a minority in Orthodox Russia. As if in witness, the water on the tables was Holy Spring, from the Orthodox Golden Ring city of Kostroma. A church a block away from the mosque displays the Orthodox cross, with a crescent at its base signifying the victory of Christianity over Islam.
“The walls held our prayers,” Iskandyarov said.
A new mosque is being built next to the destroyed one. The cornerstone was laid in 2005, but it is still far from finished, and no work has been done in a few years. Now, officials said, the permits are in hand and work can proceed.
Around the edges of the room, journalists whispered that a Muslim from the Caucasus had donated a great deal of money to finish construction of the new mosque and that tearing down the old one represented a shift in power. Once Tatars defined the Muslim community; now they are outnumbered by Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The Muslims at the news conference — Tatars who grew up in Moscow — said they should have been told that the mosque needed repairs. They could have come up with alternatives. The old one could have been incorporated into the new one.
“That would have been too expensive,” interrupted Farit Farisov, chairman of the board of trustees of the Council of Muftis, who attended the event. “Where would we get the money?”
Of course people had been told, he said later. “Maybe we didn’t use the word ‘demolish,’ but we talked about reconstruction,” he said. “I’m a lawyer. I cannot define demolish or reconstruct. Talk to an architect.”
He said that the new mosque will be finished within a year or so and that the old one will be restored as part of it. Frescoes were saved, he said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything will be fine.”
As he spoke, a large yellow steam shovel was biting into the rubble of the mosque, dropping it into a red dump truck.