Wednesday 28 October

by Lawrence A. Uzzell and Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

Russia's controversial 1997 law on religion supposedly puts Islam on
an equal basis with Orthodox Christianity as a 'historical' religion.
But in Stavropol, 950 miles southeast of Moscow, Muslims have found
that some of Russia's traditional religions are more equal than

Despite its deep-south location, Stavropol is one of the few
provincial capitals in Russia without regular, public Muslim worship
services. The civil authorities registered an Islamic congregation
in 1993, when religious freedom was at its height in Russia, but they
have since effectively deprived that congregation of a meeting place.
They have denied the Muslims even partial access to the city's only
mosque, built a few years before the 1917 Bolshevik coup. Earlier
this year the Muslims managed to rent a small room for congregational
worship in another building, but several months ago the authorities
expelled them.

Paradoxically, the Stavropol authorities are unusually tolerant of
most Protestant confessions. Groups such as the Pentecostals, which
have experienced growing repression elsewhere in Russia, have had no
difficulties in renting sites such as cinemas in Stavropol. Even
Protestant groups without formal registration are free in practice to
hang up posters and distribute brochures on the streets. By
tolerating most Protestants the Stavropol authorities are obeying
Russia's 1993 constitution while violating the 1997 law which
contradicts the constitution. But by repressing the Muslims they are
violating both the law and the constitution. In effect Stavropol has
reversed the positions which Muslims and Protestants occupy in most
Russian cities.

To learn why Stavropol's mosque is still off-limits to the city's
Muslim residents - far more numerous today than when the mosque was
built - Keston News Service visited YURI GONTAR, vice-speaker of the
provincial Duma. He said that the mosque was located in a cemetery
right next to the Orthodox Church of the Assumption. 'There's an old
Russian saying', he told Keston, 'you don't bring your own rules into
someone else's monastery'. Keston objected that the mosque was in
fact located not in the Church of the Assumption's cemetery but on
its own site on Mikhail Morozov Street. Deputy Gontar nevertheless
persisted in his opinion, even after Keston showed him a map of the
city with the mosque clearly labelled on Morozov Street.

Deputy Gontar also said that the position of Stavropol's Orthodox
METROPOLITAN GEDEON on the issue 'fully coincides' with that of the
secular authorities. But Gedeon's press secretary told Keston in a
telephone interview that the Metropolitan believed that the Muslims
should have a place of their own in which to worship, and that he did
not oppose returning the historic mosque to them. In a lettter of 9
November 1993 the Metropolitan wrote to YEVGENI KUZNETSOV, then
governor of the province, as follows:

'My brothers, the Muslims of the city of Stavropol, have appealed to
me with a request to provide them help in the return of their
congregation's mosque. Sympathising with the just efforts of the
Muslim believers to have their own place of worship, and supporting
their petition and their desires, I hereby petition and request you,
respected Yevgeni Semyonovich, to resolve this question in the

ABDULA OMAROV, official representative in Stavropol of the
neighbouring, mostly Muslim, province of Dagestan, told Keston that
'Gedeon has good relations with Muslims'. He cited several local
cases of cooperation between the two confessions, such as the
construction by Muslim builders of an Orthodox church in Kaspisk, on
the Caspian Sea in Dagestan. The Metropolitan had acknowledged the
builders' efforts by awarding them an Orthodox cross, he said. Omarov
also pointed out that even Teheran, Iran, with its well-deserved
reputation for religious intolerance, had a functioning Orthodox
Christian church.

A local Muslim believer showed Keston a building on Pushkin Street
opposite Stavropol's Upper Market, a basement room which the Muslims
had used for Friday worship for the first half of 1998. But early in
the summer, several Muslim sources told Keston, the city police had
had the Muslims expelled. One source said that the site's landlord
had been told that he would lose his job if he objected.

Keston was unable to reach city officials for comment. Deputy Gontar
of the provincial Duma told Keston that Stavropol authorities 'will
never do anything to stop the Muslims from practising their faith' -
but failed to explain why the city has been without any public Muslim
worship services since July. When pressed on the point he said that
90 per cent of the city's population was Russian, so a mosque was not

Deputy Gontar and other secular officials gave Keston contradictory
accounts about the history of the city's old mosque. According to
Gontar the art exhibition which the building now houses had been
there for the last forty years. But when Keston visited the
exhibition, one its own employees said that it had been there for
less than a decade. She said that the building had previously housed
the Stavropol archives, installed there in the 1940s. Before that it
is said to have been used for residential flats. Several officials
told Keston that the building had never been used as a mosque, but
they said they were not sure what it had been used for during the
decade and a half between its construction and its confiscation by
the new Soviet state. Nor did they explain why Stavropolitans of the
late tsarist period would build what is clearly a Muslim mosque and
then immediately convert it to secular use.

The mosque is indeed located on Mikhail Morozov Street, just as
labelled on the map which Keston purchased at a Stavropol kiosk.
Though several sources said that its roof leaked, its exterior seems
well-preserved, with such features of traditional Muslim architecture
as the distinctive minaret for summoning the faithful to worship. As
is common on buildings of historic importance in Russia, a sign on
the outside wall facing the street gives the years during which it
was constructed and the name of its architect. The sign specifically
states that the building is a mosque ('mechet' in Russian).

One Muslim source told Keston that the recent war in adjacent
Chechnya had made it psychologically difficult for the Stavropol
authorities to make any concessions to the city's tens of thousands
of residents whose ancestors were Muslims - even though the great
majority of these residents were not ethnic Chechens. But SERGEI
POPOV, the provincial government's former top adviser on inter-ethnic
relations, said he believed that the authorities would be able to
return the mosque without facing mass protests or demonstrations from
the city's ethnic Russians. Popov also downplayed the danger to the
province's stability of so-called 'Wahabi' Muslim extremists.

What was now called 'Wahabism' in the Russian news media had no
theological relation to the original Wahabi movement in Saudi Arabia,
Popov told Keston. He said that the Saudi type of militant, purist
Islam had never existed in Stavropol province: 'Our Muslims are more
like Russians - more patient'. He recalled one case of a mosque in
Irgakli (about 150 miles east of Stavropol city) being used as a
training hall for guerrillas, but said that he considered this an
exception to the general pattern. He believes that a few Muslim
extremists are working underground in his
province, but 'not getting results'.

The head of the FSB (the relabelled KGB) for the province was quoted
by the newspaper 'Stavropolskaya pravda' in December 1997 as saying
that one way for the secular authorities to counter the 'Wahabi'
extremists was to support those forms of Islam which were traditional
in the region. The Dagestani representative Omarov told Keston that
on this issue the FSB's views coincided with his own.

Stavropol human-rights lawyer VARTAN NAZARETYAN, an independent
'initsiativnik' Baptist, predicted to Keston that eventually the
secular authorities would give in and allow Muslim worship to resume
in the historic mosque. He believed that a key element was the
pressure on the Stavropol authorities by the governments of Dagestan,
Tatarstan and other heavily Muslim Russian provinces. Also, he said,
'the Muslims are legally right'.

Nazaretyan told Keston that the most serious current problem for
Protestants in Stavropol involved the effort of the local
congregation of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists to erect
a second, larger prayer house. The congregation received permission
to begin construction at an agreed-upon site, but then the
authorities reversed their decision and the Baptists had to negotiate
about another site. The authorities again gave their consent, then
again began creating difficulties which have caused the Baptists to
suspend construction. (Baptists in Moscow have faced similar
problems with construction sites.) But unlike the Muslims, the
Baptists are allowed to conduct public worship services in an old
prayer house which they have already been using for years.

A more typical Protestant experience in Stavropol is that of ANATOLI
and TATYANA LUKOSHOV, missionaries from Ukraine working to plant a
congregation of the 'Slovo Zhizni' ('Word of Life') movement. Though
their group still does not have the ten formally enrolled members
needed for legal registration, they told Keston that they already had
permission to preach at a prison camp and to show the western-made
'Jesus' film at a home for the elderly. Members of other
unregistered Protestant groups gave Keston similar accounts.

Thus Stavropol seems to be unique in two ways: Not only do
Protestants enjoy more religious freedom than Muslims, but the most
independent, unregistered Protestant groups at present are having
fewer problems than Russia's oldest, largest and least independent-
minded Protestant body - the Baptist Union created during the STALIN
years. Not for the first time, the local situation found by Keston is
the opposite of what one would expect from sitting at a desk in
Moscow. (END)