Moscow Muslims pray on sidewalks for want of mosques
Russian nationalists oppose more Muslim prayer space
It is a typical Friday scene -- worshippers kneeling in the rain outside Moscow's biggest mosque, forced to use their shoes to anchor their prayer rugs to keep them from blowing away in the autumn winds.
The scramble for a place inside is a weekly headache for Muslims in the Russian capital, a city with one of the biggest percentage of Muslims in Europe but with only four mosques.
And their plea for more space to worship is stirring tension with Russia's resurgent nationalists.
"When I can get here early, I can find a place inside. Otherwise I need to stay outside," said Abdyl Ashim Ibraimov, 30, a regular at the Sobornaya mosque, Moscow's largest.
Thousands of faithful descend upon the site each Friday for the Islamic day of prayer, but the green building topped with gold crescents -- wedged between blocks of apartments and an immense stadium in central Moscow -- can only hold up to 800 people.
Once full, worshippers filter into its nearby administrative offices, then the interior courtyard and finally spill onto neighboring sidewalks.
"Friday prayers are very important. That's why we come here, whether it's raining or snowing," said Ashur Ashurov, a silver-haired man in his sixties.
Estimates vary for the number of Muslims in Moscow, a vast city of 10.5 million. Russian officials put it at about 1.2 million but the Council of Muftis, the official Muslim organisation in Russia, says it is closer to two million.
With only four mosques, "there is a catastrophic shortage of place," said the Sobornaya mosque's imam, Ildar Khazrat Alyautdinov. "It is not enough to accommodate those who want to come and pray."
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from ex-Soviet republics in mainly Muslim Central Asia have flocked to Moscow, swelling the capital's already significant Muslim population.
"We are asking, and even demanding, that there be a mosque in every borough, ideally in every neighbourhood," Alyautdinov said.
Efforts to meet these demands, however, have been stymied by objections from local residents influenced in part by the rise in Russian nationalism since the Soviet collapse.
According to Alyautdinov, a project to add a second building to enlarge the Sobornaya mosque site has been blocked by the absence of "one small signature from a bureaucrat" needed to finish the work.
And fierce protests from residents have thwarted other plans to build an enormous new mosque in the city's southeast designed to hold up to 5,000 people.
Moscow officials had promised to hand over land in a park to build this new facility. Angry local residents, however, delivered a petition to authorities against the mosque's construction while a group of anti-mosque activists went further, recently planting trees in the area set aside for the building.
"At the moment we can wander here with pets, have barbecues. But an imam could say: don't roast pork here, don't walk your dogs here," said Mikhail Butrimov, a spokesman for the activists.
"There will be altercations" if the mosque is built, he warned.
Critics, including Sova, a Moscow-based NGO that monitors hate crimes, have linked the protests to xenophobic groups, singling out Butrimov whom they say has been put forward as a candidate in several elections by obscure nationalist parties and does not even live in the neighborhood of the proposed mosque.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam with the Moscow Carnegie Centre, a think-tank for nonpartisan research and analysis, said the root of the problem is a lack of tolerance among Moscow residents.
"Moscow is a cosmopolitan city... and the city with the biggest Muslim population in Europe. People need to get used to seeing mosques," he said.