Russia’s Muslims lack mosques, holiday crowds pose problems to urban dwellers

The Russian Muslims’ celebrations of Eid al-Fitr (Uraza-Bairam) – the day that ends the fasting month of Ramadan – has revived the debate in society again about whether more mosques should be built in a predominantly Orthodox country, and about broader issues, such as how representatives of different religions and cultures can coexist in peace and harmony.

It is an open secret that a large part of the Slavic population of Russia is hostile to the conduct of Muslims, especially that of migrant workers, and their religious and ethnic ceremonies and rituals in the city streets. First of all, because this exacerbates urban congestion and interferes with normal city life. They argue: we must build more mosques, then the believers will not annoy anyone. Without building new spacious mosques Moscow, for example, is doomed to “Muslim traffic jams”. However, some find even mosques a hindrance. Society is split over this issue.

On Tuesday, the mosques across the country held solemn prayers. About 100 thousand believers marked Eid al-Fitr in Moscow. As in the previous years, during the festive Muslim celebrations the streets adjacent to the main mosque in Moscow were impassable, and the turnstiles inside the metro station Prospect Mira had to be stormed.

At the mosque there gathered a crowd of 50,000 worshipers. Very small, built over 100 years ago, the mosque could not accommodate everyone. Those who had not managed to take place inside the mosque before six in the morning had to spread prayer mats on the street. Two nearby streets were closed to traffic, so a giant jam developed on the Prospekt Mira avenue. Inside the mosque in Bolshaya Tatarskaya street fifteen thousand believers were praying, and a huge crowd flooded the metro station Novokuznetskaya. Moscow’s other two mosques: in Khachaturian street and at the Poklonnaya Hill memorial were packed to capacity, too.

For the first time in Moscow believers gathered not only in mosques, but also in the Sokolniki park, inside a pavilion that usually hosts exhibitions and concerts. True, only 1,000 were in attendance, though the facility could accommodate three times as many, but the believers welcomed this gesture by the Moscow authorities.

“Before we used to pray in the main mosque, but this year decided to go to Sokolniki, here the praying is to start on time, and this is even more important than the place where it is held,” Moskovskiye Novosti quotes Alisher, a resident of Moscow as saying. This was confirmed by representatives of the Muslim Board of Chuvashia, who attended the ceremony. “The Quran says that the site of worship can be at any clean place. In Soviet times, for example, people were praying in the parks, covering the place of the prayer with straw or hay,” the chief of the Muslim Board of Chuvashia said.

The head the Muslim Board of Moscow and the Central Region, Mufti Albir Krganov, told reporters after the prayer that the possibility of holding festive events at venues like the pavilion in the Sokolniki park does not ease the desire of Muslims to build new mosques in the capital. “In world capitals like London or Paris there are almost a hundred mosques. We are negotiating with city authorities, hoping to reach agreement soon on the construction of new mosques in Moscow,” said Krganov.

This time Eid al-Fitr in Moscow saw no major incidents. According to the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, the discipline of believers and the professionalism of police cordons both contributed to this. “But will the capital’s infrastructure be able to cope with the influx of people in the future?” the daily asks. It is hard to say, especially since the issue of building new mosques in Moscow remains suspended. “Eid al-Fitr in 2011 once again confirmed: Moscow year after year steps on the same rake, while the problems of believers and other Muscovites remains unresolved,” the newspaper concludes.

The exact number of Muslims in Moscow is unknown. According to the 2002 census, Moscow had 400 thousand Muslims and up to 8 million Christians. But in 2009, the chairman of Council of Muftis of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin, said that Moscow had about 2 million Muslims. Some mentioned other figures – 4.5-5 million. The statistical difficulties arise from the fact that many Muslims are illegal migrants.

According to sociologist and historian of religion Roman Silantyev, in Moscow there are six mosques that are open formally, and up to a hundred rooms arranged for Muslim worship. Christian services are held at 882 churches and chapels. Meanwhile, no new mosques are built in Moscow.

The Moscow authorities last year allocated a territory for the construction of a mosque in the east of the capital. However, this decision provoked a storm of protests and demonstrations by local residents, who said they would lose a nearby park and the mosque itself would be a source of noise and disturbance. Since then, the issue has remained unresolved.

The sentiments that exist in society are reflected in the Internet. For example, one Artyom on August 30 wrote: “I was in a state of shock when at a subway station, and then on a train I found myself in a 90% non-Russian crowd. There was a feeling that I am a guest worker my hometown. Very unpleasant.”

Yulia, in St. Petersburg, remarks: “From nine in the morning there are crowds of Muslims at the Gorkovskaya and Petrogradskaya stations. There is no friendliness on the faces. I saw six police. It is unpleasant that I am scared to walk about my own hometown.”

And one can find dozens of such statements on the world web. But there are other opinions, too. Andrei writes: “You are cruel people! Congratulations from the depth of my heart to all Muslims on this holiday! It is a pity that Christian holidays do not gather so many people! God is one! Peace and goodness to all!!!!”

Oksana: “And I’m not afraid. The people are celebrating. And I walk the streets safely, I have not been harmed by anyone, on the contrary, all Muslims are very friendly today. Maybe aggression breeds aggression? And all of us are wanderers on this Earth. Is there anything we can do about that?”

The editor-in-chief of The New Times magazine, Yevgenia Albats, said on the radio station Ekho Moskvy on Tuesday it was her firm conviction that a new mosque should definitely be built. “If we do not want to see all that flood the streets and squares, of course, we need to build mosques, whether we like this not. It may be a good idea to move these mosques to some areas of the city, where there is a large concentration of people who profess Islam.”

“Generally speaking, it is indecent to put people of other religious beliefs in the position of rogues,” she concluded.

MOSCOW, August 31

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