Russia's Muslims Demand More Mosques

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MOSCOW - Moscow has the largest Muslim population in Europe, with four mosques in the Russian capital city serving some two million people.

But Muslims say that's not enough and so the need for more space is stirring controversy.

No Place to Pray

This is a typical Friday scene in Moscow: Thousands of Muslims fill the streets and sidewalks around Moscow's four mosques.

"We just don't have enough space," Yusup Sadjanovich, a Muslim worshipper, said.

For Sadjanovich, a frequent worshipper at the Central mosque - Moscow's largest, getting to prayer early doesn't guarantee a place inside.

"Most of the time I'm praying outside. I can't remember the last time I got to pray inside the mosque," Sadjanovich said.

Sidewalk Prays

CBN News recently gained rare access to film during Friday prayers. Every inch inside was taken.

The Central mosque can only hold 800 people, but thousands visit the site each week, forcing worshippers to spill into the hallways, offices, then the courtyard, and eventually onto sidewalks and side streets of nearby neighborhoods.

"Friday is the most important day for Muslims to pray and that's why I come, despite the lack of room," said Ibrahim, another Muslim attendee at Friday prayers.

The mosque is undergoing major renovations to allow more people to gather for prayers.

Muslims Praying in Churches?

The argument the Muslims make is this: there are only four mosques in this entire city servicing some two million Muslims.

The imam of the mosque, Ildar Ayautdinov, declined our request for an interview. But he told Moscow's Metro Daily newspaper that unless the situation changes, Muslims in the city may end up praying in Russian churches.

"We would rather avoid this extreme measure," he said. 

His brother, Shamil Alyautdinov, is also a prominent Islamic leader. He did talk to CBN News.   

Fighting a Perception Problem

"The problem is that we are fighting a perception issue in Russian society about Muslims," Imam Alyautdinov said.

"Most people associate such places of worship with terrorism and radicalism and so people get angry when we talk about building new mosques," he said.

And that push back was on display late last year when plans were drawn up to convert a sprawling park into a massive new mosque that would hold 5,000 people. 

Local residents converged on the site protesting the mosque construction and confronting a local Muslim imam.

"You are monsters, ugly creatures, go away from here to your motherland," shouted a concerned Muscovite woman

Muslim Backlash

The neighborhood is made up of an ethnic group called the Tartars, the vast majority of whom are Muslims.

"Do any of you even know a Tatar family? Do you have Tatar friends?" a local Imam asked. "We need to grow our kids in the right way-- not to drink alcohol or do drugs."

Authorities have since scrapped plans for the mosque. But that has done little to calm fears here.

"I am scared," one Russian woman told CBN News as we interviewed her near the proposed mosque site.

"They come into a neighborhood and begin to tells us things we can and cannot do," she said. "We like to walk our dogs here and have outdoor barbecues. But the Muslims can say you can't cook pork or you cannot walk your dog around here."

Muslim Immigrant Influx

There are no exact figures, but Russian officials put the number of Muslims in Moscow at just over one million. Muslim groups say it is closer to two million. 

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants like Sabir Adahkoor have flocked to the Russian capital since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Many of these immigrants are from former Soviet republics in Muslim Central Asia.

"Life is good here but we feel the tension with the society as more and more Muslims move into the city," said Sabir Adahkoor, an immigrant from Tajikistan.

Moscow's 'Muslim City'

Tensions were exacerbated by scenes of thousands of Muslims chanting 'god is great' and praying in the middle of major Moscow streets during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Such images prompted a local magazine to dub this a "Muslim city."

The fear that Muslims are taking over is a real one among some Russians today. But Imam Alyautdinov said, despite the challenges facing Muslims in Russia, it is up to him and others in the community to convince people otherwise.

Still he insists more Muslim places of worship must be erected to meet the growing demands of the population.

Iman Ildar Ayautdinov told a French news agency quote, "We are asking, and even demanding, that there be a mosque in every borough, ideally in every neighborhood."

*Original broadcast April 20, 2011

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