RUSSIA: Karelian Authorities Alarmed by Growth of Islam.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 1 May 2001

According to Karelia’s interior minister, Igor Yunash, the republic is `no exception' to a growing trend which sees young people in Russia's regions willing to take up arms to defend Islamic precepts instilled in them by organisations founded and led by Arab immigrants. However, on a visit to the republic’s capital, Petrozavodsk (575 miles north of Moscow), Keston News Service found a small community of some 100 Muslims trying to avail itself of its legal rights to build its own mosque - so far in vain.

In a leaked 28 December 2000 letter to Karelian governor Sergei Katanandov, of which Keston News Service has obtained a copy, Yunash expresses alarm at the growing public profile of the Muslim community in Petrozavodsk since it came under the leadership of an emigre from Libya, Visam Ali Bardvil. `Earlier Muslims did not try to propagandise their religion widely,' writes Yunash, `still less, propose the construction of a mosque practically in the centre of the capital.'

Measures taken by the Karelian Interior Ministry and FSB (former KGB) to `regulate the situation', Yunash informs Katanandov, include plans `to reduce to a minimum the influence of Bardvil on believers by sending a mufti from Moscow to Karelia' as well as the preparation of a series of special programmes on the local television station `Karelia' `aimed at preventing the possible spread of extremist ideas.'

Similar fears have featured prominently in the Karelian local press. Interviewed by `Stolitsa' local newspaper on 9 November 2000, military representative Aleksandr Ionov suggests that the city's Muslims might be preaching Islam `of the militant variety'. `Why has a Muslim organisation appeared right now, when there is a war going on in Chechnya?' he asks. `Remember that in 1936 the Germans founded their own community in Czechoslovakia and within two years Czechoslovakia was seized by Germany. The same thing is happening here: Wahhabism could spread throughout the whole world.'

The community of Muslims in question actually formed in Petrozavodsk in 1990, three years before Visam Ali Bardvil, a Palestinian Arab and now a Russian citizen, first came to the city, he told Keston in the Karelian capital on 18 April. Then as now, he said, the community of some 20 practising members met in private flats - `maybe 100 pray regularly in Petrozavodsk but not all together, you can't fit more than 20 in a flat.' Last year the community affiliated with a centralised religious organisation (Ravil Gainutdin's Moscow-based Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of European Russia) and was registered on 26 May 2000. According to Visam, registration was `very easy'. Judging by his comment to national newspaper `Obshchaya Gazeta' in February, local plenipotentiary for religious affairs Boris Detchuyev shares the tolerant attitude of the Karelian department of justice: `We live in a free country. After all, a Christian can live in a Muslim republic, so why should we be afraid of Muslims?'

Other representatives of the Petrozavodsk local authorities appear to harbour the same fears as Minister Yunash, however. Despite the community's legal status, Visam told Keston, the bombing of housing blocks in Moscow last year - allegedly by Chechen terrorists – was cited by Petrozavodsk Municipal Property Committee as grounds not to allow the community to rent cellars in the city, `but they don't say this on paper of course.' And after the Muslim community was allocated land in the Oktyabr district of the city by the mayor's office in August 2000 for the construction of a mosque, said Visam, its plans were stalled once councillors began to fan `unfounded Islamophobia' among the local population.

Councillors Vladimir Lavrentyev and Aleksandr Chazhengin (of the Yabloko party) objected to the construction of the mosque `in a densely-populated region of town, in close proximity to student and youth institutions', said Visam, while Councillor Dmitry Sheremet (Otechestvo), who represents Oktyabr district, circulated flyers to local residents in January expressing concern. On one such flyer given to Keston, Sheremet points out the presence in the area of five student hostels, two secondary schools and a transport technical college, and asks, `How will the transformation of this area into a Muslim one affect young minds?'

By late February, local newspaper `Gorod' was reporting results of a poll conducted in Oktyabr district according to which 496 of 521 respondents did not approve of the construction of a mosque in their area. The Visams, who happen to live in Oktyabr district, started to receive hate mail - one anonymous letter seen by Keston concludes: `Your faith is satanic and brings people only evil. You have been warned.'

Evidently of concern to the Karelian Interior Ministry is the active nature of the Petrozavodsk Muslim community, which includes Russians, Karelians and Finns. While his Russo-German wife Fatima commented to Keston that conversions to Islam were now common in Russia, Visam said that he nevertheless saw his community's task as educating the town's 6,000 nominal Muslims about Islamic rules and rites. However, he still appeared apologetic that the planned mosque would hold 400 people: `I just wanted a building with four rooms, but our Azeri businessmen will sponsor a mosque only if it has a minaret and cupola.'

In view of the opposition to the mosque, Visam told a public meeting organised by Sheremet on 1 February that the community would no longer pursue its construction in Oktyabr district, although, he emphasised to Keston, the application had been made `entirely according to the law'. Visam also pointed out that terrorists `don't build mosques or recognise the state', whereas his community had made a point of applying for land at the mayor' s office so as to be seen to be cooperating with the authorities, even though the purchase of land would have constituted a fraction of the total cost of the mosque. Now, he said, the community was disillusioned because state officials had not acted to ensure their rights: `We are just going to buy the land and not have any contact with them.' (END)