Putin says Moscow's new mosque is the largest in Europe

Private donors underwrote the 10-year effort to replace an old mosque with a bold structure that incorporates Russian architectural details. Moscow may have as many as 2 million Muslim residents. 

Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS
Muslims arrive at Moscow's new grand mosque for an Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bairam) mass prayer in Russia, September 24, 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has held a high-profile ceremony in Moscow to mark the opening of what he described as Europe's largest mosque, a soaring and stunning piece of religious architecture.

The building replaces a mosque built in 1904 and will seat 10,000 adherents in a city that is estimated to have some 2 million Muslims, though no official data is published. 

The structure is estimated to have cost $170 million, all of which was paid for by private donations. Its formal title is the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, employing religious terminology borrowed from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Mr. Putin used Wednesday's opening ceremony to praise peaceful Islam and castigate its extremist elements. His comments came as Russia steps up its military involvement in defending Syria's embattled dictatorship regime and as some Russian jihadists have volunteered to fight for the self-describe Islamic State.

The Catholic World Service news reports that Putin, standing with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, told the crowd:  

We see what's happening in the Middle East where terrorists of the so-called Islamic State discredit the great world religion, discredit Islam by sowing hate, killing people... destroying the world's cultural heritage in a barbaric way,” Putin said….“Their ideology is built on lies, on [an] open perversion of Islam.

Putin, who enjoys mixed reviews at best among ordinary Muslims in the sprawling Russian Federation, went on to warn against “exploiting feelings.” Reuters writes that Putin called for:

Russia's Islamic leaders to stand against extremism at a time when some 2,400 Russians are fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East.

Russia, home to some 20 million Muslims, has fought two wars against Chechen separatists in the mainly-Muslim North Caucasus region where an Islamist insurgency is still simmering and some rebels have sworn their allegiance to IS.

The mosque was completed after 10 years of local controversy in Moscow, echoing tensions in numerous cities around Europe where burgeoning Muslim populations face a paucity of places to pray and restrictions on mosque-building. Moscow has only three other working mosques. 

The New York Times reports that Moscow census-takers stopped denoting ethnicity a decade ago but that estimates of 2 million Muslims in the Russian capital seem reasonable:

If generally accurate, that would mean Muslims make up about 16 percent of the population in a city of 12.5 million, putting Moscow in contention for the title of most Muslims in Europe, not counting Turkey. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the greater Paris area, often described as having the largest concentration in the European Union, range from 1.2 million to 1.7 million.

The architect of the Cathedral Mosque incorporated traditional Russian motifs in the design. The Times notes that, “The dome — of the onion family, if not exactly an onion,” is circled by quotations from the Koran and fits into the religious landscape of gilded Orthodox domes nearby.

The BBC reports that among the mosque's private funders were Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who contributed $25,000, and Dagestan-born billionaire and politician Suleiman Kerimov, who gave $100 million. 

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