Sunday, December 5, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Muslims Too Will Press for Return of Religious Property Seized by Soviets

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 5 – The new law on the restitution of religious property was largely written on the basis of demands by the Moscow Patriarchate and designed to benefit the Russian Orthodox Church in the first instance, but under its term Russia’s Muslims too are going to press for the return of religious property seized from them by the Soviet authorities.
And while most Moscow commentaries have correctly pointed out that the Russian Orthodox Church stands to recover the largest amount of property, Muslim organizations have claims on buildings, furnishings and land in many parts of the Russian Federation and are already pressing their claims.
Their efforts puts the powers that be in Moscow in a difficult position. If officials follow the provisions of the legislation and return this property to Muslim groups, they are likely to offend many ethnic Russians who are upset by the appearance of mosques and minarets in their neighborhoods, a trend that would only increase if the law is obeyed.
But if the powers that be ignore the law and defer instead to popular feelings, that is likely to exacerbate anger among Muslims in the Russian Federation, who will view this as additional evidence that they do not enjoy all the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and in fact are becoming “second class” citizens as some of their leaders already say.
That is all the more likely because of several provisions of the law itself. On the one hand, the law requires that religious organizations specifically ask for the return of property, something that may lead more Islamic groups to form up in order to take advantage of that possibility.
And on the other, the law both specifies the times within which officials are to respond and requires that all decisions be posted on the Internet, a form of glasnost seldom followed in the past and one that means Muslims, just like others, will know quickly who is benefitting from the law and who is not.
Ethnogapher Akhmad Makarov suggests many places are likely to become the sites of such efforts. Among the sites Muslims are likely to seek the return of first are the Khan mosque in Karimov in Ryazan as well as mosques in Krasnodar, Stavropol. Armavir, Astrakhan and the Shiite mosque in Vladikavkaz (
There is also “the serious problem” of the return of monuments like mausoleums, especially in Kasimov, various locations in the Middle Volga, “not to speak of the Caucasus.” Within traditional Islam, these places of pilgrimage and veneration are also defined as religious sites. Muslims are thus likely to demand their return as well.
There is at least potentially as even more explosive issue, one that Makarov does not mention or the new law specifically address: the possible return of the extensive waqf properties that the Soviet government seized in the 1920s. These enormous holdings, including land and businesses, provided support for mosques and other religious centers under the terms of Islamic law.
It is unlikely that Muslims will seek to recover them anytime soon, but the new law does open the door to that possibility in the future, especially given that ever more Muslim communities are seeking to create new waqf properties in the Russian Federation in order to ensure the continuing operation of mosques and medrassahs there.
But if most of the efforts by Muslims to seek the return of religious property will take place outside of Moscow, those in the Russian capital are certain to attract the most attention. Damit Gizzatulin, the deputy head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) indicated that his group is focusing its efforts there (
Past efforts to secure the return of the capital’s Cathedral Mosque have not been successful, he noted, but “despite the complexities in the achievement of our goal, we are working on it,” inspired by the new possibilities that the law on restitution of religious property opens.
At the same time, he pointed out, however, the Muslim parishes which currently use the Historic Mosque on Bolshaya Tatarskaya and the Memorial Mosque on Poklonnaya have not yet prepared documents seeking the return of these facilities given that they currently have them on the basis of permanent use.
Gizatullin said that there were precedents that Moscow’s Muslims will use from the return of mosques 20 years ago in Krasnodar, Orenburg, and Ufa as well as the return of the Arkhangelsk mosque earlier this summer. That mosque, he noted, was “a simple wooden structure, without even a minaret,” and so officials were prepared to let it go.
He suggested that one of the flashpoints in this effort is likely to be in Stavropol. The mosque build there in the first years of the 20th century was seized and transformed into a museum, a use to which the building continues to be put. Local residents, the SMR leader said, oppose returning “their” museum to the Muslims.
But already this week, reported, one Muslim community has had success in getting its property back. The head of the Nizhne-Serginsk district of Sverdlovsk oblast, Valery Yeremeyev, has returned the “Repentence” mosque in the town of Mikhaylovsk to its original owners (

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