The rise of Russian Muslims worries Orthodox Church

From Jeremy Page in Moscow,,174-1721508,00.html

THE religious leader of Russia’s Muslims has alarmed
Russian Orthodox Church leaders and ultra-nationalists
by asserting that the country now has 23 million
indigenous Muslims — at least 3 million more than
previously thought. 

According to the last census, three years ago, about
14.5 million of Russia’s 144 million population were
ethnic Muslims. For several years religious leaders
have put the number at nearer 20 million. 

But Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis
of Russia, said this week that the number of ethnic
Muslims in Russia was 23 million and was growing fast.
“They are indigenous residents of our country, not
migrants or immigrants, and have been living here from
time immemorial,” he told a meeting of the European
Union of Muslims. “The number of people professing
Islam in Russia is constantly growing.” 

Russia is also home to an estimated 3 million to 4
million Muslim migrants from former Soviet states —
roughly 2 million Azeris, a million Kazakhs and
several hundred thousands Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. 

Some Russians are also converting to Islam, according
to Sheikh Farid Asadullin, of the Moscow Council of
Muftis. “Ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians,
mostly young and intelligent, see in Islam an answer
to their questions,” he told The Times. 

Islam was strictly controlled in the Soviet Union,
which had only 500 mosques, but has enjoyed a
renaissance since 1991, helped by funds from the
Middle East. Russia alone now has some 5,000 mosques. 

The rise in the Muslim population has raised fears
among Russian Orthodox Church leaders and
ultra-nationalists that Russia could one day become a
Muslim-majority nation. The Church claims to have 80
million followers, but religious experts say the
number is closer to 40 million and on the wane. 

Russia’s overall population is declining, due in part
to the adverse effects of high alcohol consumption,
but numbers are rising in Muslim regions, where large
families are common and alcohol consumption is more
moderate. Russia’s total population dropped by 401,200
in the first half of this year, but the population
rose in 15 regions, including the republics of
Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. 

Rosstat, the state statistics agency, said the average
birth rate per woman was 1.8 in Dagestan, compared
with 1.3 for all of Russia, while male life expectancy
was 68 in Dagestan, against 58 for all Russia. 

Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in Russia,
said: “The real problem is the crisis of the Russian
population, not the increase of the Muslim population.
And, of course, the Church is not so powerful or so
significant for Russians as Islam is for Muslims. This
doesn’t mean that Russia will become a Muslim society
in several years, although maybe in half a century
we’ll see something surprising.” 

In the short term, the trend was likely to affect only
the North Caucasus, where the proportion of ethnic
Russians was already dropping rapidly, and Moscow,
where the proportion of Muslims was rising, he said. 

Russian forces have been fighting Chechen rebels for
more than a decade and the bloodshed is now spilling
into neighbouring republics and radicalising many
young Muslims. 

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s first Deputy Prime
Minister, announced plans this week to build Europe’s
largest mosque in the Chechen capital, Grozny, to try
to attract people to mainstream Islam. 

Moscow, a regular target for Chechen rebel attacks in
the past two years, is home to an estimated 1.5
million Muslims, including about 100,000 Chechens, who
are often harassed by police and skinheads. 

Mr Malashenko said: “Islamophobia and xenophobia are
on the rise. We can already see the effects with
several nationalist groups. Despite all the conflicts,
the situation is quite stable, but I don’t believe it
will stay the same.”


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