RUSSIA: Mosque Demolition Case to Supreme Court?

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 11 May 2001

Despite failing in court at four levels to remove a mosque built in 1998 by the Muslim community in the city of Vologda, 500 kilometres (310 miles) north-east of Moscow, the regional prosecutor's office and the state directorate for the preservation of historic monuments are considering whether to take their case to the Russian Supreme Court. Speaking separately to Keston News Service, Ravil Gainutdin, mufti of European Russia, and the chairman of Vologda's Muslim society both accused the regional authorities of deliberately pursuing an anti-Islamic policy. However, the deputy governor of the region, Ivan Pozdnyakov, denies this. `The current circumstances are exclusively to do with building standards,' he claimed. `Citizens' rights to freedom of conscience and proselytism and their national sentiments are not being infringed in any way.'

Mufti Gainutdin reported that the Vologda authorities have been trying through the courts to force the local Muslim community to dismantle the mosque for the past three years, claiming that it had been built illegally. `The community has already managed to win in four courts: district, city, regional and federal in the North-West Okrug,' Mufti Gainutdin told Keston on 4 May. `However, we cannot rule out the possibility that this will not be the end of the Vologda Muslims' problems. The authorities may take the case to have the mosque dismantled to the Supreme Court.'

In 1997, a tender was announced for construction of the mosque and architects from Moscow, Vologda, Yaroslavl and Vladivostok took part. However, once construction was completed in 1998, the regional prosecutor's office and the state directorate for the preservation of historic monuments in Vologda region began their actions in the courts.

On 15 December 2000, Gainutdin write to President Vladimir Putin to complain about the legal suits, describing the campaign against the mosque as `an echo of the militant atheistic campaign of the 1960s'. The mufti asserted that the Vologda case was not unique: `Unfortunately, we are encountering flagrant examples of Islamophobia on various levels in several regions, including Kamchatka, Taganrog and Volgograd.'

Gainutdin received a response not from Putin but from deputy governor Pozdnyakov, who rejected claims that the moves against the mosque were anything other than the enforcement of building standards. `It's a question of relations between the state and the person responsible for the building work,' he declared in his 14 February response. `Its resolution must not veer onto an inter-confessional, inter-national or political plane. In this context, it is inappropriate to interpret the authorities' demands for the law to be observed as a political imperative and an expression of Islamophobia.'

Speaking to Keston by telephone on 7 May, Pozdnyakov acknowledged that the Islamic community had won in four courts, `demonstrating that the mosque is not in a historic part of the city, and consequently that its construction did not require the permission of the state directorate for the preservation of historic monuments'. He added that he did not know whether the two bodies would appeal the latest court ruling in the Supreme Court. Pozdnyakov asserted that `the authorities have adopted a neutral position in this dispute'. `Mufti Gainutdin and the local Muslim community are persistently trying to take this dispute onto a political plane,' he complained. `In my view, that's just speculation. We are not hindering the activity of the mosque and we are not interfering in the work of the legal system.'

However, the chairman of Vologda's Muslim community, Albert Mustafin, takes a different view. `Since we won the court examination in the North-West Federal Okrug, we have been subjected to endless financial investigations - now the authorities are trying to use that route to close the mosque down,' he told Keston on 7 May. Mustafin rejected Pozdnyakov's assertion that the authorities were neutral in the dispute. `The state directorate for the preservation of historic monuments in Vologda region answers to the administration for cultural affairs in Vologda region, which just happens to be run by Pozdnyakov.'

Mustafin believes the region's leadership is actively developing the idea that the territory they govern is a particularly unique region of Russia. He says the authorities constantly stress that Vologda was never seized by the Mongols and that because of its profusion of Orthodox monasteries, Vologda province was known in the 19th century as the `Northern Thebaid', a reference to the desert of Thebaid in Egypt, inhabited by hermits of the early Christian Church. According to Mustafin, the construction of a mosque contradicts the authorities' concept. (END)