Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Window on Eurasia: A Saudi Mosque in Moscow in Exchange for a Russian Church in Mecca?

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 26 – The king of Saudi Arabia has announced that he is ready to support the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Moscow, a city with only four mosques for its more than two million Muslims. In response and probably to block this, Orthodox Christians in Russia have called for opening a church in Saudi Arabia.
These two proposals have sparked an often intriguing discussion by Russia’s Muslims and Christians over the role religion plays in defining the two societies and about the role of law in regulating that, a discussion that could either enrich or complicate the Kremlin’s relations with Muslims inside Russia and Muslim states abroad it is currently trying to court.
Last Thursday, Rushan Abbyasov, the head of the international department of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) announced that the Saudi king had agreed to finance the construction of a mosque and a cultural center in Moscow “if the Russian authorities will offer a site” appropriate for them (
Saudi offer came on the eve of a meeting between SMR chairman Ravil Gainutdin and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Moscow, Ali Hasan Jafar. Abbyasov noted that the Saudis have already build mosques in other capitals, and he noted that the new mosque would be administratively subordinate to the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (SMD) of European Russia.
Given that Moscow has only four mosques – the same number it had at the end of Soviet times – but a Muslim population that may number as many as 2.5 million, Muslims in the Russian Federation were delighted by the offer and the attention from abroad it suggests. But many non-Muslim Russians were horrified that another mosque might be opened in their capital.
After the Saudi offer was reported, three Russian Orthodox groups – the Moscow section of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, the Radonezh Society, and the Byzantine Club – released an open letter to Saudi King Abdullah suggesting that there should be another mosque in Moscow only after a Russian Orthodox church was opened in Mecca.
Their appeal noted that “Saudi Arabia is building mosques in dozens of Christian countries” and then asked whether it would not be only just if permission were given to Christians to build a church within its borders for Christians living there, something Riyadh has been reluctant to permit (
And in support of their argument, the three groups cite the comment of Jean-Louis Cardinal Toran, the head of the Papal Council on Inter-religious Dialogue that “if Muslims consider it correct to have a large and beautiful mosque in Rome, then it is equally correct for Christians to have a church in Riyadh.”
The Orthodox groups also argued that it would be “very important” to lift the restrictions now in force against Christians visiting the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina,” to all visitors to Saudi Arabia to wear crosses, and to create special courses about Christianity in general and Russian Orthodoxy in particular.
Moreover, they suggested that if the Saudis want to begin broadcasting their television programs to the Russian Federation and its Muslims, then “it would be just” to offer “Your subjects the opportunity to watch Russian Orthodox channels and thus to learn that “Christians don’t believe in three gods, don’t distort the Bible and don’t pray to idols.”
Individual Russian commentators were more outspoken about the Saudi proposal. Arkady Maler, who writes frequently on cultural issues, said that the king’s offer should be rejected not only because Christians can’t build churches in the kingdom but also because Saudi Arabia is the homeland of Wahhabism, which some Russian jurisdictions have declared illegal.
Consequently, he said, no more mosques should be built, especially by the Saudis, in the Russian capital until there are churches in Saudi Arabia, because there is no reason to build another mosque in Moscow which at most would serve only “a few thousand people,” far fewer than the number of Christians in Saudi Arabia (
Dmitry Volodikhin, a Russian nationalist fantasy writer, added an additional reason for opposing the construction of a Muslim center in Moscow: The Russian capital, he said, needs to restore more Russian churches for Orthodox Christians before it thinks about building new mosques for Muslims (
Most Muslim leaders have refrained from making comments so far, but Nafigulla Ashirov, the outspoken head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Portion of Russia, was quite willing to offer his comments about this dispute to Russian news agencies (
Ashirov said that the laws of each country should determine what the followers of each faith can do: if it is legal as it is for Muslims to build mosques in Russia, that is fine; and if it is not legal and it isn’t for Christians in Saudi Arabia to open churches there, then that must be respected as well.
What makes this interesting is that Ashirov, whose comments have often put him at odds with both other Muslim leaders in Russia and with the Kremlin, here adopts a position that the Russian government likely would be very comfortable with, while the Russian Orthodox nationalists are staking out one that could cause trouble for Moscow at home and abroad.
This debate is only beginning – the Saudi offer came only last Thursday – and the positions the various participants take will say a great deal about and even highlight the divisions among religions in Russia and between the faithful, on the one hand, and the Russian state, on the other.

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