RUSSIA: Precarious Future for Half-finished Taganrog Mosque

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 8 December 2000

Muslims in the southern Russian city of Taganrog not far from Rostov-on-Don still do not know if they will be allowed to complete their half-finished mosque. Since the former mosque was razed under Soviet rule, the city's 7,000 Muslims have had nowhere to meet. Cossacks, Communists and the Orthodox clergy have written to President Vladimir Putin and Viktor Kazantsev, the President's representative in the Southern Federal region, to complain of what they regard as the `threat' posed to the Don region by the Wahhabi movement, of which they see the new mosque as a part. The growing `Wahhabi witchhunt', Cossack anti-Muslim sentiment and, most importantly, the looming Taganrog mayoral elections, all mean that the mosque might lose its minaret - or even that the entire mosque will be demolished.

Mufti Jafar Bimayev, head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Rostov region (part of the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims, headed by Talgat Tadzhuddin), told Keston News Service on 4 December that after the Islamic community applied for permission to build a mosque, the city administration offered a plot of land. Construction of the mosque - which is 11 by 15 metres - was agreed with all the relevant authorities, the mufti declared.

On 30 September Cossacks held an unauthorised meeting demanding a halt to construction, claiming the mosque would become a `Wahhabi breeding ground'. That same evening, some people came to the building site, seized the guard and beat him up, threatening to kill him if construction continued. `The guard says they were Cossacks,' said the Mufti, 'but he's disappeared and I haven't seen him for three months. He won't go back there.'

Local television broadcast a discussion - to which Muslims were not invited - at which Orthodox priests, communists and representatives of the Slavyanskoye veche organisation spoke against the mosque. The mufti complains that `absurd' claims were made, for example that construction had been `funded by Chechen field commanders' and that Muslims would `defile a holy place'.

The city administration brought legal action to halt building work and for the construction to be pulled down. The court refused, as a dispute between legal persons should be resolved by arbitration. A criminal case was then opened alleging construction had been illegal, something the mufti only learnt when he received a summons from the investigator. `We have all the documents we need to show our right to the land, but some of them can be taken in two ways.'

Mufti Jafar believes the administration has revoked approval under pressure ahead of the mayoral elections, which are due on 24 December. `The Cossacks issued an open letter saying they would only support a candidate opposing construction of the mosque.'

On 4 December, Keston asked a specialist on relations with religious organisations in Rostov region, Vitaly Brezhnev, why the conflict had arisen. `The elections - that's the only explanation,' he replied. He reported that after the Muslim community gained registration and applied for building permission, an agreement was endorsed by all the officials, including the head of the city administration. But that permission did not acquire legal force as it was not published. A copy of this draft agreement was given to the mufti and he started building, but then the elections came up. Had he waited, he would have received the decision. The mayor's chief electoral opponent is from the Communist Party, which is capitalising on the dissatisfaction of the Cossacks, who have not been consulted.

Mufti Jafar says Muslims have experienced no difficulties during his two decades working in Rostov region. `We get on well with the administration and were given land for a cemetery. We are on excellent terms with the mayor of Taganrog, Sergei Shilo.' Brezhnev praised the mufti's peace-making activities.

Brezhnev reports that the Rostov regional administration organised a meeting at which the supporters and opponents of the mosque agreed that any religious organisation has the right to build itself a place for prayer. But bowing to public unease, it was agreed the mosque should be built without a minaret so that it would not be obvious as a mosque.

At an inter-faith peace forum on 14 November, Mufti Jafar and Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin discussed the dispute with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Patriarch Aleksi of the Russian Orthodox Church. `The Patriarch asked me to tell him everything in detail and said what had happened was an absolute disgrace,' said Mufti Jafar. `He also promised to contact me as soon as possible, but he hasn't done so yet.' (END)