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Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s statement that the construction of new mosques in Moscow is not planned has evoked a strong reaction in the Muslim world. Islamic religious leaders do not agree with the decision and say they will seek the opening of new mosques. Experts warn that there is still a need to settle the problem.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said last Friday on the Echo of Moscow radio station that the Muslims who attend mosques in the Russian capital “are far from being citizens and residents of Moscow, and many are even not Russian citizens.” “They are guest workers. Only 10 percent of them are residents of Moscow, so building mosques for everyone from all over the country, I think, it’s overkill,” he said.
Several mosques are enough for Muslim Muscovites, the construction of others is not planned by the city authorities, Sergei Sobyanin said. “There are no such projects that we are going to implement or approve soon,” the mayor said.
Meanwhile, various sources in the mayor’s office just in December reported that the Moscow authorities decided to build four mosques in the “dormitory” districts of the RF capital. This is actively sought by the Muslim leadership, referring to the fact that the existing mosques cannot accommodate all who want to attend. However, all the attempts by the Moscow authorities to allow building mosques in the suburbs ended in failure - such intentions caused violent protests of local residents.
No one today knows the exact number of Muslims living in Moscow. According to the 2002 Census, there are about 400 thousand of them in the city. However, according to unofficial data, taking into account the growing influx of migrant workers, including illegal, their number could exceed 3 million. However, there are four mosques and several religious Islamic centres in the city as of today.
The most popular venue for holiday praying is the territory near the Cathedral Mosque adjacent to the Olympiysky (Olympic) Sports Complex. According to police estimates, up to 80-100 thousand worshipers, creating traffic jams and annoying Muscovites, gather here for the Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice or Kurban Bayram) holiday.
The Moscow mayor said that as a result of the current reconstruction of the mosque its area will not be significantly expanded, since “there are already enough problems there.” He recalled that the city authorities have repeatedly offered Muslims stadiums and indoor areas, where they can gather during the holidays.
The Council of Muftis of Russia acknowledged that most of the visitors of Moscow mosques are really migrant workers, but nevertheless stated that they believe it is necessary to set up at least temporary prayer rooms during Islamic holidays.
“We will stand up for our religious and civil rights. The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations provides free exercise of religion,” Co-Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia Nafigulla Ashirov told the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily in an interview.
If necessary, Ashirov noted, Muslims will turn to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help. “It is not ruled out, the more so that the president said that Russia is a Christian-Muslim power. And if it is impossible in this power to build mosques according to the needs, it is not normal. He, as the Protector of the Constitution, I think, will respond,” the mufti said.
First Deputy Chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of European Russia Damir-Khazrat Mukhetdinov said in an interview with Itar-Tass that four Moscow mosques cannot not accommodate everyone wishing to pray - “Our women do not attend Friday prayers, because there is not enough space for them in the mosques. We cannot take our children with us to the mosque - there is no room to swing a cat. It is difficult for our old men to get to the prayer from different districts of Moscow.”
Agreeing that a significant part of the congregation are migrant workers, Mukhetdinov said: “These migrant workers live in Moscow without any right. Their only consolation is to pray in the mosque, but the respected mayor wants to deny them also this right.”
As a result, according to Mukhetdinov, “Muslim migrants wander from door to door, going to prayer rooms in the markets, hotels, dormitories. We do not know who preaches to them there and what he preaches. Whereas in legal mosques we acquaint the migrants with Russian culture, because we preach in Russian, calling for law abidance, tolerance, friendship among peoples.”
Member of the State Duma lower house of RF parliament from the United Russia faction, Executive Director of the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation Vyacheslav Nikonov believes that the current position of the Moscow mayor’s office is quite reasonable. He believes that the issue of the construction of new places of worship should be decided at the believers’ place of residence. “This problem is the responsibility of local authorities, whose role must be enhanced. It is the local self-government bodies that study and are sensitively aware of the mood of the residents. And any centralised decision on the construction of a new worship building will invariably cause rejection of people living in a particular district,” he told Itar-Tass.
“The Moscow mayor has apparently faced a negative reaction of Muscovites to the construction of new mosques and made the relevant conclusion,” Director of the Institute of CIS Countries Konstantin Zatulin told Itar-Tass. According to him, this position is quite understandable. If Sergei Sobyanin intends to run for the mayor’s post, he simply must take into account the opinion of citizens, Zatulin believes.
Scholar-in-Residence of the Carnegie Moscow Centre Alexei Malashenko is certain that it would be “much better if Muslims pray openly, not in hiding, which cannot be controlled.” The recent cases of arrests of members of extremist Islamist organisations in St. Petersburg are another proof of that, he told Itar-Tass.
The Russian society has the age-old tradition of coexistence of different religions - Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, said the political analyst. Even if the issue of the construction of new worship buildings in the congested RF capital seems unsolvable, still it is necessary to think of it today, before it is too late tomorrow. “Similar problems exist in Paris, Madrid, London. They sometimes seem like a vicious circle. But still we will have to gradually solve them, the main thing is not to be late,” Alexei Malashenko believes.
MOSCOW, March 7