Against rather long odds, including a hostile mayor, a vocal constituency irritated by Muslim rituals, and criminal rackets loath to see valuable real estate lost to charitable organizations, Moscow inaugurated a glittering, elaborate new mosque on Wednesday.
It took 10 years to come to fruition, in fact. The opening was a singular event in a city where a wave of bombings by Muslim extremists that started around 2000 generated an animosity toward the faith that never entirely abated.
Flanked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, President Vladimir V. Putin used his speech at the inauguration of the mosque, which he called the biggest mosque in Europe, to emphasize that Russia would develop its own system of religious education and training to counter extremism.
“Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State are compromising a great world religion, compromising Islam; sowing hatred; killing people, including clergy; and barbarically destroying monuments of world culture,” Mr. Putin said. “They are trying to recruit followers here in Russia, too. Russia’s Muslim leaders are bravely and fearlessly using their own influence to resist this extremist propaganda.”
Known as the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, the grand structure can accommodate 10,000 people on three stories and replaces a much smaller building erected in 1904. The previous two-story mosque, with a squat dome and two short minarets, held only 1,000 people.
“Finally, Moscow, which lays claim to the title of the biggest Muslim city in Europe, has a big mosque,” said Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on Islam at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It shows that the center of Islamic life in the Russian Federation is in Moscow.”
There are just three other official mosques in a city with a Muslim population that could be as high as two million. No one knows, because there are no exact public numbers. (Russian census numbers have long been considered dubious, and about 10 years ago, the government stopped counting according to ethnicity, which had been broadly used to estimate religious affiliation.)
If generally accurate, that would mean Muslims make up about 16 percent of the population in a city of 12.5 million, putting Moscow in contention for the title of most Muslims in Europe, not counting Turkey. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the greater Paris area, often described as having the largest concentration in the European Union, range from 1.2 million to 1.7 million.
Given the tens of thousands of Muslims who pray on city streets during major holidays, Moscow appears grievously short on mosques. Before now, the existing four could accommodate just 10,000 worshipers.
Often, 60,000 or more Muslims show up at this site on major holidays, like Eid al-Adha, which is being celebrated on Thursday in Russia and will be the public opening of the new mosque. The building is tucked into a corner near one of Moscow’s stadiums left over from the 1980 Olympics, and an adjacent parking lot now has the capacity for an overflow crowd of at least 20,000.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Neil MacFarquhar