The 5 faith harbor

The head of the Russia Muftis Council, Ravil Gainutdin.Photo by Ria Novosti

The head of the Russia Muftis Council, Ravil Gainutdin.Photo by Ria Novosti

There is a growing unrest in Moscow over the construction of a mosque and a madrassa in the Tekstilshchiki District. The local residents, who oppose the construction, were joined in support by the Russian Orthodox Church – which brings the conflict to the state level.

Representatives of the two largest denominations in Russia are supporting their claims with some quite telling arguments and figures, but it looks like the problem will have to be resolved with the help of the secular authorities’ careful and delicate state policies.

At his recent meeting with the Russian prime minister, head of the Russia Muftis Council, Ravil Gainutdin, complained about the small number of mosques in the capital. A year ago, the head of the Muftis Council cited the following statistics in one of his interviews: in Moscow, where some 2 million Muslims reside today, there are only five mosques. They all have a small maximum capacity and “do not provide sufficient room for prayer”. For comparison, Ravil Gainutdin had then stated that “in Beijing alone, where only 250,000 Muslims reside, there are 70 mosques” and complained about the difficulties “in obtaining permissions for allocation of land for the construction of mosques in not only Moscow and the Moscow region, but also in other cities and regions of Russia”.

After a piece of land was allocated to the Muslims in Moscow, in response, Tekstikshchiki residents began collecting signatures from opponents of the mosque’s construction in the district, and experts began arguing about the necessity of constructing new Islamic places of worship in the capital. Interestingly, despite the fact that a decision concerning land allocation for the construction of the mosque was made early this year, an active discussion of the subject began only in the recent weeks. This time, head of the Department of External Church Relations, Vsevolod Chaplin, became involved in the conflict at the request of the opponents of construction in Tekstilshchiki. He quite reasonably suggested resolving the issue by taking into account the opinions of local residents.

“The rich practice of construction of Orthodox churches in countries with the dominant religions that are non-Orthodox, including Islam and Buddhism, shows that conflicts could be easily avoided if the place of construction, the size of the house of worship and its architectural features are agreed upon with all the parties involved – including the local residents. The archpriest believes that the same should be done in Moscow, first ‘by informing citizens and local public hearings organizations’.”

However, when speaking of the need to have public hearings (the lobbying capabilities of the ROC to organize these hearings in a way that the majority of people gathered will categorically oppose the mosque are much higher than those of the Council of Muftis to mobilize support for its initiative), Vsevolod Chaplin had, in fact, shared the opponents’ concerns. His letter includes a passage stating that, in modern Russia, mosques are “often constructed or seized by people under the influence of foreign extremist centers”, which is openly stated by the leaders of traditional Muslims, themselves. According to the priest, the Orthodox population needs to be provided with guarantees that such cases will not be repeated, and this could also be a topic for discussion between local authorities and the Muslim communities.

Issues regarding representation of cultic establishments of the world religions, just as interfaith relations, are far from perfect in even some of the largest and most progressive and democratic cities of the world – New York, London, Paris. It is probably impossible to completely eliminate interfaith conflicts.

In Moscow, at the initiative of Patriarch Kirill, the ROC plans to erect 200 new pre-fabricated churches in three to four years. The motives of this project are the same as those of the Council of Muftis for the construction of mosques: Patriarch Kirill stated that Moscow has the lowest church capacity in relation to the population size in Russia – there is one church for 40,000 Orthodox Muscovites, while in a number of Russian regions, the ratio is one church for 3,000 people.

It is unlikely that the leadership of the Council of Muftis and the ROC, just like the secular authorities of Russia and Moscow, are interested in turning the city into separate zones, divided by nationality or religion, with separate laws and customs. However, this threat is growing in all major multi-ethnic and multi-confessional mega-cities of the world. To make sure that the city is not segregated and the structure of Moscow as a secular metropolis and a capital of a secular state under the Constitution of Russia does not collapse, it is precisely the state authorities, in close contact with the ROC, Council of Muftis, and representatives of other major confessions, who must discuss and resolve such disputes. This must be done on the basis of an equal and utmost transparent approach to all religions, with respect to the rights of the believers, as well as the rights of all the city’s residents.

Today, it would be hard to imagine protests of the Muslim community against the construction of a church in Moscow. But the capital’s Muslim population is getting larger, and will continue to grow. The inability to construct mosques in Moscow due to the citizens’ protests will hardly improve inter-ethnic relations in the city.

To the contrary, the atmosphere of daily xenophobia could easily become a breeding ground for inter-ethnic and interfaith strife. Not allowing for this strife to develop is the responsibility of the state, separated from all religions by Russian law.


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