Mosques in Moscow become a flash point as city's diversity swells

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 5:09 PM

IN MOSCOW On Sept. 11 this year, the day protesters were challenging the construction of a mosque two blocks from New York's World Trade Center site, residents of an old industrial neighborhood were on the march in Moscow.

They, too, were opposing construction of a mosque.

New mosques are so contentious here that none has been built in over a decade. This is a city with perhaps 2 million Muslims, unless you believe it's 500,000, out of a population of 14 million - or 10 million. There are only six mosques, but with one at the Iranian Embassy and two in one place, for Shia and Sunni, maybe there are only four.

On this volatile issue in Russia today, every point of view arrives in the company of the opposite. If someone believes more mosques are needed to prevent the swelling numbers of Central Asia immigrants from going astray, someone else believes their construction will nurture terrorism.

Into this treacherous landscape march the people of Tekstilshchiki, who live near the city limits where cotton mills long ago gave way to auto factories, with towering apartment buildings arriving over the past few years.

Jeans-clad young people, track-suited middle-aged men and carrot-haired pensioners gathered Sept. 11 to defend a ribbon of grass the length of a city block. Volvo bulldozers digging cable lines have left ruts in the grass. Huge slabs of pre-cast reinforced concrete, the Soviet-era building blocks, lay in an untidy pile as if forgotten along with some unfinished five-year plan.

"It's the only green place here," says Margarita Khetvani, 29, strolling as her 6-year-old son, Kevin - a Costner-inspired name - collects fallen chestnuts. "A mosque should be somewhere far away."

Khetvani, who circulated a petition against the mosque, says she has Muslim neighbors who also oppose it. They don't want the traffic. They don't want the noise.

"My son will have to listen to their shouts," she said, walking along the grass earlier this week and describing the call from minarets. "They'll be killing sheep here."

Two days before the demonstration, Moscow Muslims set off for the Central Mosque, built in 1904, to observe the end of Ramadan. There were many hundreds - perhaps many thousands - and they made an astonishing sight, throngs as far as the eye could see stretching along Schepkina Street near the 1980 Olympic Hall, prostrate on the broad pavement in prayer, street car tracks covered with rugs, or strips of old wallpaper for those without.

Moscow looked like an Islamic city, and the photos were all over the Internet. The anti-mosque demonstrators carried printouts with the words "Do we need this?"

This exasperates the imam of the Central Mosque, Ildar Alyautdinov.

"Let us build a mosque," he said. "It doesn't have to be there. Any place is fine with us. We need a mosque. We should have 10 at least." And yet, he says, city officials promise one location after another, and nothing ever works out.

The Central Mosque was founded by Tatars, Muslims who have lived in Russia for centuries. That most Russian of all symbols, St. Basil's Cathedral, was built to commemorate their subjugation at the hand of Ivan the Terrible in the 1500s. Muscovites are used to the Tatars.

They are not so used to the darker-skinned immigrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and they fear the violence in Chechnya and Dagestan that has spilled over into Moscow - suicide bombers attacked the Moscow metro March 29.

The photos of some many Muslims made the imam uneasy, too.

"Such a crowd is not manageable," says Alyautdinov, a soft-spoken 32-year-old Tatar and native of Moscow. "We want this load off our shoulders."

Many of the new immigrants are rural folk, he says. "We have lots and lots of people coming from a different world," he says. "We have to support them spiritually. We have to teach them, or we will lose them."

That makes Roman Silantyev nervous. He is a professor of religious history and Orthodox believer who says such a large gathering of Muslims occurs only once a year, hardly justifying a new mosque. "At Christmas I have to spend two hours outside my church," he says.

"People want to have guarantees that a new mosque will be a place of prayer and not a place for accumulating terrorists," he says. "Will every Muslim leader be able to give guarantees?"

Guarantees? says Nikolai Mitrokhin, a researcher with the Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen in Germany. Nothing happens at a Moscow mosque, he says, without the FSB, successor to the KGB, knowing about it.

The Orthodox Church, which has 400 parish churches and 200 new ones on the drawing board in Moscow, agrees that more mosques are needed but says that Muslim leaders failed to discuss plans with local communities first.

"I am absolutely sure there is enough land in the city to build new mosques," says Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the church's department of external relations. "And if we have more mosques, people won't have to stand in the street making other people nervous."

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