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Only ‘compatriots’ in war How plans for a new mosque in Moscow exposed the limits of Russia’s religious pluralism

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Feldman

In early February, residents of Moscow’s Kosino-Ukhtomsky District started protesting in opposition to the rumored construction of a new mosque in their area. Over the weeks that followed, the demonstrations grew into a bizarre and ugly spectacle on which everyone from MMA fighters to Chechnya Governor Ramzan Kadyrov to Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill felt compelled to weigh in. On April 5, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that the protesters would get their wish, and that a new site had been chosen for the mosque. The solution was sold as a win-win, but public figures from Dagestan and Chechnya say the incident triggered xenophobia that will leave Russia’s Muslims worse off in the long run.

Earlier this week, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov took to Telegram to disparage protesters in Moscow. Referring to the demonstrations as “provocations,” he accused participants of “acting in the service of Western interests” and trying to “drive a wedge” in Russian society.

The protesters in question were not expressing opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; in fact, it’s likelier than not that most of the protesters support the war. The issue that drove them to the streets was the rumored construction of a new mosque in their neighborhood, Moscow’s Kosino-Ukhtomsky District.

According to a petition that garnered more than 27,000 signatures, the new house of worship was designed to fit 60,000 people and was set to be built near Lake Svyatoye, which the document calls a “religious and historical sacred place for Russia and Moscow.”

Local residents began holding regular protests against the project in early February. On March 18, the Moscow news outlet Msk1 reported that a sign at the construction site said the facility being built was a new transport hub, and that a Moscow city planning committee document obtained by the outlet indicated that the complex would contain an “educational and religious facility.” At the same time, district officials maintained that the new building would contain no religious facilities.

Defending his constituents, Russian State Duma deputy Evgeny Stupin said they were concerned that a “disproportionately large amount of territory” had been allocated to the transport hub, and that the authorities had “neither confirmed nor denied plans to build a mosque.” Residents told journalists that they learned about the mosque by word of mouth and at church.

Another federal lawmaker, Mikhail Delyagin, expressed the reason for his opposition to the mosque in more blatant terms: “When I say ‘Moscow,’ I always stop myself, because this could be interpreted as the incitement of ethnic hatred. Judging by Russia’s national policies, the correct name for the city is ‘Moskabad.’”

In early March, the protesters held a religious procession, walking through the district with signs and icons to show their opposition to the mosque. Msk1 reported that some participants were later visited by police and warned about possible felony charges for organizing large-scale protests and “inciting ethnic hatred.”

Several weeks later, the Telegram channel Ostorozhno, Novosti shared a video that showed a man burying a pig’s head on the construction site. Soon after, according to the channel, he was arrested.

One deacon whose constituents gathered signatures against the mosque’s construction told the outlet Moslenta that every June, people come from all over Moscow to visit a specific icon in a church in the Kosino-Ukhtomsky District. After holding a “religious procession thousands of people strong,” he said, the visitors go swimming in the lake. “[But] women in bathing suits are unacceptable for Muslims. Local residents are worried it could lead to conflicts or altercations. The prospect of such a large Islamic complex neighboring an Orthodox holy site makes people nervous,” he said.

On March 19, about 500 local residents held another demonstration outside their church. “We moved [here because we wanted to live in] a quiet residential area, and the mosque could disturb our peace. The district will become an ‘Islamic center.’ We’re not particularly opposed [to the construction of a new mosque], but it should be an appropriate size for the district and somewhere further in, not on this shore,” said one protester.

MMA fighter Maxim Divnich spoke out against the project as well, saying the mosque was slated to be several times larger than Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and that it would be located “on a sacred Orthodox site.” He later reported that he received threats and negative messages in response to his comments. Islam Makhachev, another MMA fighter and a proponent of the mosque, wrote that “no matter how much people like Divnich try to prevent the construction of mosques, the number of mosques and Muslims is only growing.”

Lora / Lori photo bank

On April 5, the day after Kadyrov’s Telegram outburst, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said that there had in fact been plans to build a mosque near the lake, but that at the requests of Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill and Russian Council of Muftis head Rawil Ğaynetdin, a new location had been chosen.

After the announcement, Kadyrov “expressed his gratitude” to Sobyanin for “finding a wonderful solution that suits everyone.” “The mosque will be built closer to the center of Moscow, [...] in a place that will be more convenient for worshippers to reach by metro or ground transportation,” he wrote.

Patriarch Kirill said the decision “doubtless met the expectations of believers, both Orthodox Christian and, I’m sure, Muslims, who highly value interreligious peace and harmony.”

‘The country isn’t addressing xenophobia’

According to Albert Esedov, the chairman of the Yabloko party’s Dagestan branch, the mosque dispute was marked by a lack of information from authorities, while the protests themselves showed a suspicious consistency.

“It was clear from the start that this was a provocation,” he told RFE/RL’s North Caucasus service, Kavkaz.Realii. “The first statements on the topic came from [the Orthodox TV channel] Spas, and opponents of the [mosque's] construction came out to protest after that. And along with them came people who decided to dilute the topic with the ethnic issue. Law enforcement should probably react to a provocation like that, but so far, that’s not what’s happening,” Esedov said on April 5.

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According to data from Russia’s public procurement website, preparations for a new transport hub in the Kosino-Ukhtomsky District began in 2016. In December of 2022, the Moscow Mayor’s Office signed a contract for the second phase of construction with a company called Monotek Stroy LLC. Publicly available documents on the project only mention transportation infrastructure, not any civil structures or religious facilities.

But according to Chechen human rights advocate Abubakar Yangulbayev, whether the controversy was artifical or genuine isn’t important; either way, it shows how widespread xenophobia and Islamophobia still are in modern Russia.

“For Chechnya, this dispute doesn’t matter. But for Chechens in Russia, it does. An escalation of Islamophobic sentiments increases the threats both to Caucasians in general and to Chechens in particular. Especially on a day-to-day level: when the titular people [ethnic Russians] refuse to rent out apartments or to hire people on ethnic or religious grounds. The country is not addressing its xenophobia,” he told Kavkaz.Realii.

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Before Sobyanin’s announcement, Orthodox activists from the radical Sorok Sorokov movement contacted the Putin administration, the Russian Prosecutor General, and the Russian Investigative Committee and demanded they prevent the mosque’s construction, claiming it would lead to a rise in crime by attracting migrants to the area.

“The protesters are directly indicating that they don’t like migrants. And these migrants practice Islam. Meanwhile, these very same Russians consider it wrong when they’re prohibited from entering Europe,” Yangulbayev said.

Four mosques for millions of people

According to Moscow Mufti Ildar Alyautdinov, between three million and 3.5 million Muslims live in the city, including 1–1.5 million migrants. Despite that, the city contains only four mosques, all of which were built after the 19th century.

Kavkaz.Realii estimated that Moscow’s four mosques can fit no more than about 18,000 people at once. In addition to the mosques, the city has 25 prayer rooms, but according to Alyautdinov that’s still not even enough for all of the Muslims who are from Moscow. For comparison, the outlet noted, Stockholm alone has three mosques, while the total number of Muslims in Sweden is less than 500,000.

While Russian officials often describe the country as a multi-religious one where people of different faiths have equal rights, myriad double standards exist in practice, Dagestani journalist Gadzhimurad Sagitov told Kavkaz Realii.

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“People in Dagestan are watching this conflict and are pained by it. Because the shortage of mosques in Moscow is a very sensitive issue. Our compatriots are forced to pray outside, in the snow. It shouldn’t be that way in the civilized world or in a civilized country where all religions are [purported to be] equal,” he said.

This Kosino-Ukhtomsky dispute and past ones like it give Dagestanis and other Muslims in Russia insight into the way a significant portion of society sees them, political commentator Magomed Magomedov said. And at the same time, he added, the lack of any response from the Russian authorities suggest those views are an intentional result of government policies.

“That’s what makes [many of us] angry: when we participate in the special military operation, when we take the heaviest losses, then we’re fellow citizens. But when a mosque is built in Moscow, then we’re ‘outsiders,’ ‘migrants,’ and our mosques are desecrating the sacred Orthodox land,” Magomedov said. “The shortage of mosques, especially on big holidays, like Kurban Bayram, Uraza Bayram, or periods like Ramadan, is something we feel acutely.”

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