Thursday, February 7, 2008

Window on Eurasia: New Muslim Centers Open in Russian Prisons

Paul Goble

Baku, February 7 – Muslim organizations in the Russian Federation are working to increase the number of mosques and prayer rooms for their co-religionists in that country’s prisons and camps, but they do not yet have a country-wide program and lag far behind the Russian Orthodox Church in reaching out to those doing time.
According to a report released by the Federal Prisons Service this week, there are now 23 mosques and 87 dedicated Islamic prayer rooms serving Muslim prisoners, far fewer than the 403 Orthodox churches and 741 Orthodox prayer rooms in these institutions (
On the one hand, specialists on this subject say, this difference simply reflects the demographic situation in the country: there are more Orthodox and hence far more Orthodox prisoners than there are Muslims and Muslim prisoners, although the imbalance in both cases is declining.
And on the other, it is the product of the attitudes of officials in the prison system and the very different level of efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church and the various Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) to reach out to a group of Russian citizens that most people not directly connected with have tended to ignore.
Until recently, many officials in the prison system were reluctant to allow Muslims to set up mosques or even receive Islamic literature from their co-religionists on the outside, fearful that such activities would lead to clashes with other prisoners or breed Islamic radicals for which the prison system would then be blamed.
But over the last five years, that has begun to change. Some wardens now welcome the establishment of Muslim religious facilities, most of which have been built by Muslim prisoners themselves, and in Karelia and the Middle Volga, for example, have even signed agreements regularizing this process.
Muslim leaders on the outside are deeply concerned about how far they have to go to catch up with the Orthodox Church in this regard. The Moscow Patriarchate has had a sector of prison service within its synodical department for work with the security services and law enforcement bodies for more than a decade.
Moreover, almost all of the eparchates have clergy who are responsible for this mission, and many of the Orthodox seminaries and monasteries have special programs for prisoners. (For details, see, and
Because they lack a single centralized institution that might direct such an effort, and the financial resources the Orthodox Church enjoys, Muslim leaders until very recently have not made a concerted effort to reach out to their fellow Muslims in prison, despite Koranic injunctions to help such people in trouble.
Some MSDs have been very active – the one in Karelia perhaps more than any other – but others have not. Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin of the Central MSD has not pushed his subordinates to do more in this area, but Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), has begun to speak out on the need to do more.
In order to jump start this effort, various Muslim commentators have suggested, the MSDs and even individual Muslim parishes need to visit those in jail and help those at the time of their release and also to make use of the Internet to which many prisoners now have access.
While there have been sporadic reports about such visits, the use of the Internet to bring an Islamic message to Muslims in the prisons and camps has attracted wider notice. Several of the major Muslim sites now feature materials for prisoners, and there is even a special blog for them called “You are not alone” at .
But despite that progress and the increasing willingness of the prison system to welcome their efforts, Russia’s Muslims have a long way to go to catch up with the Orthodox in this, one of the least often discussed areas of religious activity in the Russian Federation today.

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