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Muslims in Russia

In the 1980s, Islam was the second most widespread religion in the Soviet Union; in that period, the number of Soviet citizens identifying themselves as Muslims generally totaled between 45 and 50 million. The majority of the Muslims resided in the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, which now are independent countries. In 1996 the Muslim population of Russia was estimated at 19 percent of all citizens professing belief in a religion. Major Islamic communities are concentrated among the minority nationalities residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea: the Adyghs, Balkars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush, Kabardins, Karachay, and numerous Dagestani nationalities. In the middle Volga Basin are large populations of Tatars, Udmurts, and Chuvash, most of whom are Muslims. Many Muslims also reside in Ul'yanovsk, Samara, Nizhniy Novgorod, Moscow, Perm', and Leningrad oblasts.

Virtually all the Muslims in Russia adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam. In a few areas, notably Chechnya, there is a tradition of Sufism, a mystical variety of Islam that stresses the individual's search for union with God. Sufi rituals, practiced to give the Chechens spiritual strength to resist foreign oppression, became legendary among Russian troops fighting the Chechens during tsarist times.

Relations between the Russian government and Muslim elements of the population have been marked by mistrust and suspicion. In 1992, for example, Sheikh Ravil Gainurtdin, the imam of the Moscow mosque, complained that "our country [Russia] still retains the ideology of the tsarist empire, which believed that the Orthodox faith alone should be a privileged religion, that is, the state religion." The Russian government, for its part, fears the rise of political Islam of the violent sort that Russians witnessed in the 1980s firsthand in Afghanistan and secondhand in Iran. Government fears were fueled by a 1992 conference held in Saratov by the Tajikistan-based Islamic Renaissance Party. Representatives attended from several newly independent Central Asian republics, from Azerbaijan, and from several autonomous jurisdictions of Russia, including the secessionist-minded autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The meeting's pan-Islamic complexion created concern in Moscow about the possible spread of radical Islam into Russia from the new Muslim states along the periphery of the former Soviet Union. For that reason, the Russian government has provided extensive military and political support to secular leaders of the five Central Asian republics, all of whom are publicly opposed to political Islam. By the mid-1990s, the putative Islamic threat was a standard justification for radical nationalist insistence that Russia regain control of its "near abroad".

The struggle to delineate the respective powers of the federal and local governments in Russia also has influenced Russian relations with the Islamic community. The Russian Federation inherited two of the four spiritual boards, or muftiates, created during the Stalinist era to supervise the religious activities of Islamic groups in various parts of the Soviet Union; the other two are located in Tashkent and Baku. One of the two Russian boards has jurisdiction in European Russia and Siberia, and the other is responsible for the Muslim enclaves of the North Caucasus and Transcaspian regions. In 1992 several Muslim associations withdrew from the latter muftiate and attempted to establish their own spiritual boards. Later that year, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan withdrew recognition from the muftiate for European Russia and Siberia and created their own muftiate.

There is much evidence of official conciliation toward Islam in Russia in the 1990s. The number of Muslims allowed to make pilgrimages to Mecca increased sharply after the virtual embargo of the Soviet era ended in 1990. Copies of the Quran (Koran) are readily available, and many mosques are being built in regions with large Muslim populations. In 1995 the newly established Union of Muslims of Russia, led by Imam Khatyb Mukaddas of Tatarstan, began organizing a movement aimed at improving interethnic understanding and ending Russians' lingering conception of Islam as an extremist religion. The Union of Muslims of Russia is the direct successor to the pre-World War I Union of Muslims, which had its own faction in the Russian Duma. The postcommunist union has formed a political party, the Nur All-Russia Muslim Public Movement, which acts in close coordination with Muslim clergy to defend the political, economic, and cultural rights of Muslims and other minorities. The Islamic Cultural Center of Russia, which includes a medrese (religious school), opened in Moscow in 1991. The Ash-Shafii Islamic Institute in Dagestan is the only such research institution in Russia.

In the greater Moscow region, Muslim groups previously complained that they have been limited to only four official mosques that were established years ago. As of April 29, there were 14 mosques and prayer houses in the Moscow region. Mosques opened in Kupavna in December 2008 and Balashikha in March 2009. Moscow Region Muslim Community "Rakhman" Chairman Rustam Davydov stated in December 2008 that only 20 Muslim groups existed in the Moscow suburbs. In comparison, the Russian Orthodox Church had approximately 1,300 parishes across Moscow Oblast, while numerically smaller confessions such as the Protestants (320 parishes) and Baptists (60 parishes) also exceeded the Muslim community's total.

In January 2009 the mufti in Cherkessk reported that the mayor of Stavropol had not returned the centrally located mosque, as promised by the Yeltsin and Putin governments. In contrast to previous reports that the Sochi mayor's office denied the Muslim community authorization to build a new mosque, credible reports in August 2008 indicated that a mosque will be built in Sochi before the 2014 Olympics.

The military has Orthodox Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chaplains. According to the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, muftis expressed concern to Defense Minister Serdyukov that the military generally did not give Muslim conscripts time for daily prayers or alternatives to pork-based meals. Some army recruits reported that fellow servicemen insulted and abused them because they were Muslim.

The Government used counterterrorism methods to commit serious violations of religious freedom against the Muslim population. There were numerous cases of Muslims being prosecuted for extremism or terrorism even when the accused had no clear connection to such activities. These included individuals detained for possessing religious literature such as the Qur'an or on the basis of evidence allegedly planted by the police. Local police allegedly subjected some persons suspected of Islamic extremism to poor treatment or torture.

According to human rights groups, a February 2003 Supreme Court decision to ban 15 Muslim groups for alleged ties to international terrorism made it easier for officials to arbitrarily detain Muslims for alleged connections to these groups. Currently, 18 Muslim groups are banned in Russia as illegal.

On May 7, 2009, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the international religious organization Tablighi Jamaat was extremist and banned its activity. The General Prosecutor maintained that Tablighi Jamaat is a radical organization whose goal is the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate, but Tablighi Jamaat and some human rights activists claimed that the organization scrupulously follows the law and exists solely to educate people about Islam.

On April 28, 2009, authorities in Dagestan prevented an assembly of activists from Nurjular, a Muslim religious organization, in Izberbash. The Russian Supreme Court banned Nurjular from Russia in April 2008. A spokesman for the FSB said that all activists who participated in the meeting were questioned and released, and that their activities remain under surveillance "across Dagestan and elsewhere in Russia."

The Government designated the Islamic organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization in 2003. Col. Gen. Alexey Sedov, head of the Russian FSB's service for constitutional regime protection and counterterrorism, told journalists in Moscow in April 2009 that 10 Hizb-ut-Tahrir branches were "eliminated" in 2008. Courts in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Udmurtia also prosecuted more than 20 members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The Sovetsky District Court of Kazan initiated a trial of an imam suspected of ties to Hizb-ut-Tahrir on April 1, 2009, charging him with "arranging activities of a social or religious association or other organization" which the court had banned for extremism.

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