KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 1 May 2001

RUSSIA: KARELIAN AUTHORITIES ALARMED BY GROWTH OF
ISLAM. Karelia 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,
according to the republic's interior minister, Igor Yunash. Keston News
Service has obtained a copy of a letter in which Yunash expresses alarm at
the growing public profile of the Muslim community in the republic's
capital, Petrozavodsk (575 miles north of Moscow).

RUSSIA: KARELIAN AUTHORITIES ALARMED BY GROWTH OF
ISLAM

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Karelia 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, according to
the republic's interior minister, Igor Yunash.

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
the republic's capital, Petrozavodsk (575 miles north of Moscow), 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)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.