Muslims In Moscow Say They Lack Space For Friday Prayers

May 10, 2019
Originally published on May 10, 2019 6:11 am
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Religion in Russia is usually associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, but Muslims have also lived in Russia for hundreds of years, and their share of the population is growing fast. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports, Muslims in Moscow say they're running out of places to pray.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Every Friday morning, the area around Moscow's main mosque is packed with believers heading to weekly prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Beggars line their route from the metro station to the mosque, a giant structure with soaring minarets, a golden dome and enough space for more than 10,000 people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Young men hand out religious newspapers. And in front of the mosque, there are policemen and metal detectors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Inside the mosque, a volunteer urges worshippers to keep moving and take the stairs to the upper levels. I shuffle up a staircase in a crowd of men to the fourth-floor gallery, where I get a bird's eye view of the vast prayer hall below. Today's sermon is about how to deal with anger.

UNIDENTIFIED IMAM: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: The imam switches from Russian to Arabic and then back to Russian, urging his flock to show kindness and respect toward others.

UNIDENTIFIED IMAM: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Now the prayers begin, and somehow the thousands of worshippers manage to prostrate themselves despite the cramped conditions. The lack of space for Friday prayers is the most pressing problem for Muslims in Moscow, which has only four mosques. Ildar Alyautdinov, the mufti of Moscow, says a city could easily do with two more.

ILDAR ALYAUTDINOV: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: "Probably society isn't quite ready. They still view mosques and Muslims as causes for fear and anxiety. And unfortunately, the city government is listening to the residents who don't want to see mosques near their homes."

Russian news coverage about Islam is largely focused on terrorist activity in the majority Muslim North Caucasus region. State TV shows dramatic images of what it calls Russia's war against Islamic extremists in Syria. But Islam has been an inherent part of Russian society since the 16th century, when Russia started expanding and acquiring territories inhabited by Muslims. Today, more than 16 million Russian citizens - about a ninth of the population - are Muslim, and their numbers have swelled in recent years with the arrival of migrant laborers from Central Asia.

I meet anthropologist Dmitry Oparin in a Central Asian cafe in downtown Moscow.

DMITRY OPARIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He says Islam life in the city is thriving, with special shops, halal grocery stores and a dozen prayer halls. But he agrees with the mufti that Moscow needs more mosques.

OPARIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He says city officials play on people's fears and are driving Muslims from public view. Back at the mosque, I run into Akhmad Zakhratullayev, a student from Dagestan who's wearing a papakha, a traditional shaggy sheepskin cap.

AKHMAD ZAKHRATULLAYEV: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He says the issue of new mosques has been politicized and hopes it will soon be solved. He says he's focused on the positive - that Muslims can now practice their religion freely after 70 years of communism. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

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