RUSSIA: Orthodox Veto on Kolomna Mosque Construction?

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 4 May 2001

Muslim leaders have accused the administration of the town of Kolomna, 115 kilometres (70 miles) south east of Moscow, of violating Russia's law on religion and in effect raising the status of Russian Orthodoxy to that of state religion. When the local Muslim community submitted a request to the town administration for a plot of land to build a mosque, the commission which examines land applications responded that the local Orthodox hierarch, Metropolitan Yuvenaly of Krutitsy and Kolomna, had called for the issue to be discussed in the press. Chief Mufti Ravil Gainutdin told Keston News Service that this in effect imposes a veto on the mosque building, as public opinion opposes the building of mosques, adding that it is getting increasingly difficult to build new mosques in Russia.

The response from the town administration, dated 13 February and of which Keston has seen a copy, declares: `The commission informs the applicant that Yuvenaly has requested a general discussion in the press about the construction of a mosque.'

Mufti Gainutdin, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in European Russia, described the commission's decision to initiate a discussion about the building of a mosque as `provocative'. 'It is natural that in a town where the population is overwhelmingly Russian the majority opinion will be against the building of a mosque,' he told Keston on 25 April. Kolomna has about 2,000 Muslims out of a total population of 163,000.

Mufti Gainutdin added that it has not been possible to raise a complaint against the committee and as a result the Muslim community has not been able to start building the mosque.

On 27 April Keston spent the whole day trying to telephone members of the commission, but they were generally unavailable. A secretary for the town's chief architect Tamara Shlenskaya asked what questions were going to be asked of her superior. Once she learned what was going to be discussed the secretary responded that Shlenskaya was 'very busy and is not receiving anyone'. Keston did manage to speak to the head of the capital works department of the town administration, Aleksandr Utkin, also a member of the commission. Utkin stated that he had heard nothing about the request to build a mosque. Asked to explain why his signature appeared on the resolution of the commission, he was at a loss to know how to respond.

On 4 May Keston finally managed to speak to Shlenskaya, who answered the phone herself. She considered that the commission’s decision in no way contradicted the law on religion: ‘The religious question is a very subtle one, and it is natural that we should want all interested parties to agree on the construction of a mosque’. She added that according to article 28 of the construction code, any building must not harm the interests of people living nearby. ‘Kolomna is a purely Christian town, and therefore the construction of a mosque concerns not only the neighbours but the population of the whole town. So the question must be discussed with all the inhabitants of Kolomna, and the best way to do this is in the pages of the local press.’

Mufti Gainutdin reports that this is by no means a unique occurrence. 'Even two years ago we hardly ever encountered any difficulties, but now the situation has changed for the worse. We have the impression that some kind of directive is circulating to the regional authorities encouraging them to obstruct the building and functioning of mosques,' he told Keston. He added that such a policy was `very short sighted' with potentially serious consequences. `People will start to meet secretly in flats, beyond the gaze of the authorities. This could well lead to the appearance of the extremist Islamic groups that the Kremlin so fears.' (END)