Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Most of Russia’s Muslims Now Live in Cities; Most of Its Mosques Are in the Countryside

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 1 – Like other Russian groups, most Muslims in that country now live in urban areas, but unlike other faiths, most of their religious facilities – in this case, mosques -- are located in rural areas, an imbalance that is creating serious problems for the more than 20 million Muslims there but also for the Russian state.
Over the past two decades, there has been an explosive growth in both the number of people who are members of historically Islamic nationalities and active believers as well as in the number of mosques open in that country. But ever more often, the faithful and the mosques are not located in the same place.
In the city of Moscow, for example, the number of Muslims has grown from a few hundred thousand at the end of the 1980s to more than two and a half million now, but within the city there are still only four mosques, despite the fact that the number of mosques in Russia as a whole has grown from perhaps 400 then to more than 8,000 now.
One reason for that widening disjunction is that many wealthy Muslims choose to pay for the erection of mosques in the villages where they were born rather than in the cities where they now live. And another is that Russian mayors, invoking the attitudes of the broader Russian society, against the construction of new mosques in their cities.
That creates problems both for the Muslim community as a whole which somehow must seek to staff existing mosques in rural areas while supporting the members of its increasingly urban base and for Russian officials who recognize that mosque-based mullahs are both easier to control and more likely to be moderate than Muslim activists who operate outside the mosques.
Debate about this was sparked by an unusual appeal last month by Fatykh Garifullin, head of the Tyumen kazyyat of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) for the Asiatic Part of Russia, to Patriarch Aleksii II of the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 17th, Garifullin described its contents to IslamNews (www.islamnews.ru/news-12614.html).
Pointing out that “the absence of a sufficient quantity of mosques in major cities is forcing Russian Muslims both in the summer and the winter to say their prayers under the open sky,” the Muslim judge said that he had “appealed” to Aleksii II to “permit Muslims to pray on Fridays” in Orthodox churches.”
Such permission, he continued, would become “not only a manifestation of Christ’s love to one’s neighbors and fellow sufferers but also be a beautiful gesture on the path of establishing mutual understanding between Islam and Orthodoxy in Russia.” In European countries, he continued, churches have routinely agreed to such an arrangement on a rental basis or otherwise.
Several parishioners of the existing Moscow mosques told IslamNews that they welcomed this proposal to conduct Muslim services in Orthodox churches or those of other faiths, especially those of the faithful who said their health did not allow them to perform the obligatory prayers “on the street in cold weather.”
Even more enthusiastic about the principle Garifullin invoked and even more concerned about the ideological implications of the imbalance between urban Muslims and rural mosques is Valiulla khazrat Yakupov, the former deputy head of the Tatarstan MSD and a leading writer on Muslim education.
In an extensive article posted online last week, Yakupov pointed out that “the enormous masses of Muslims in the cities have a very limited number of mosques,” something that makes a mockery of the claims of Muslim leaders and the complaints of others about the “thousands” of mosques that exist in rural areas (www.islamrt.ru/htm/socializacia.htm).
One of the consequences of this small number of urban mosques is that the graduates of the country’s Muslim universities cannot find jobs in the cities, he said, even though only there is it really “possible” to arrange for financially stable Muslim parishes and mosques that could support the newly trained mullahs.
But another is that in the absence of such urban mosques, some Muslims fall away from the faith while others fall under the influence of radical leaders whose interests are more political than religious and who by their statements and actions create problems for relations between the Russian umma and the broader Russian society.
But not surprisingly, some nationalist Orthodox writers view any proposal to allow Muslims to use churches as “illiteracy or a provocation,” to quote the title of an article by Yuri Maksimov in the issue of the right-wing religious magazine “Radonezh” released today (www.radonezh.ru/analytic/articles/?ID=2769).
In the words of Maksimov, Garifullin’s proposal is at a minimum “a demonstration of a lack of tact and lack of respect for the Orthodox Church” because it shows that the Muslim judge had made no attempt to find out what Orthodoxy says about the possible use of its shrines by members of other faiths.
While some Protestant and Catholic churches in Europe “as a result of the spiritual crisis” there do allow Muslims to use their churches, the “Radonezh” writer says, the Orthodox Church does not because it equates Muslims with heretics and does not allow heretics to practice their ideas within the confines of hallowed space.
But there are four other reasons why Garifullin’s proposal is a non-starter, Maksimov continues: First, there is no tradition of allowing Muslims to use churches in Orthodox countries; second, Russian churches “are not empty;” third, Russia’s Muslims are better supplied with mosques per capita than its Orthodox are; and fifth, some of Russia’s mosques are “empty.”
Given all that, Maksimov argues, “it becomes clear that the current ‘initiative’ was dictated not by some real needs” but by “other goals” including securing for Islam a “privileged position” within Russian life, something inappropriate given that Russia has never been a Muslim state and “with God’s help,” never will be.
Consequently, the Orthodox writer says, there is only one way for Garifullin and his fellow believers to make use of Russian churches. That is to be baptized and convert to Christianity. If they do that, Maksimov concludes, they will be most welcome to pray in church any day they want – something that he says has “long been the practice in Russia.”

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