Russia's new mosque hints at a warmer welcome for Moscow's Muslims

At the opening of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, President Vladimir Putin suggested that embracing Muslims at home would discourage them from joining extremists abroad.

Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (c.) and Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia Ravil Gainutdin (r.) attend a ceremony to open the Moscow Cathedral Mosque in Moscow, Russia, Sept. 23, 2015.

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a new mosque in Moscow – the largest in the nation and one of the largest in Europe.

Mr. Putin described the occasion as an opportunity to make progress against the ideology of Islamic State (IS) by bridging the divide between Islam and Christianity, reported The New York Times.

"Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State actually cast a shadow on the great global religion of Islam," he said. "Their ideology is built on hate."

Muslims make up one of the fastest-growing religious groups in Russia, though they are still outnumbered by adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Before the construction of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, which can hold approximately 10,000 worshipers on three floors, the capital city had only had three places of worship to accommodate Moscow's estimated 2 million Muslims, most of whom come from the North Caucasus republics in southern Russia or former member states in the Soviet Union.

The construction of the Cathedral Mosque was plagued by setbacks. Construction began when the previous Cathedral Mosque, located on the same grounds, was demolished on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Muslim scholars had approved demolition of the decaying building, but architectural historians were incensed at the loss of the 107-year-old mosque.

Construction ultimately required four years and and $170 million in investments from domestic and foreign interests, including the governments of Turkey and Palestine. Foreign leaders attended the grand opening, scheduled to coincide with the celebration of Eid al-Adha (The Feast of the Sacrifice), one of Islam's holiest days.

Mosque construction may have been prolonged by the xenophobia of some Russians. In 2013, Sergey Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow, insisted that there would be no other mosques built under his watch. "Muscovites are becoming irritated by people who speak a different language, have different customs, and display aggressive behavior," he said. "This is not a purely ethnic issue, but it is connected with some ethnic characteristics."

He also claimed that the praying throngs were "labor migrants," not Russian citizens. "There are only 10 percent of Moscow residents among them, and building mosques for everyone who wants it – I think this will be over the top," he said.

Under the Soviet regime, all religions were forbidden, but the post-Soviet era has seen a dramatic thawing toward adherents of the Russian Orthodox church, if not members of other religions. In 2013, Orthodox officials began work on a government-sanctioned plan to build 200 churches in Moscow, evidence of its "privileged position," wrote Russian journalist Anna Vasilieva at the time.

"Despite statements to the effect that Moscow is a multi-denominational city, other religious groups have few churches of their own," she wrote. "The Catholic Church has two churches and 12 parishes. The Jewish faith has five synagogues; Muslims have four mosques and Lutherans have three churches."

Many of Moscow's residents share their mayor's antipathy toward migrant Muslim workers, said Ms. Vasilieva.

"Muscovites have become hostages to their phobias with respect to Muslims," said Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Russia, in response to an earlier, unsuccessful bid to build a mosque in the Moscow district of Mitino.

The anti-Muslim sentiment has made Russia ripe soil for Islamic State recruiters. The New York Times reports that approximately 2,400 Russians are already fighting for IS in Syria, which contributed to Putin's controversial decision to provide military aid to Assad's regime.

At the opening of the Cathedral Mosque, Putin emphasized the role of Russia's muftis and imams in keeping Muslim youth away from IS. He said, "Muslim leaders of Russia are courageously using their authority to resist the extremist propaganda. I’d like to express huge respect to these people who are carrying out a really heroic work."

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