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Moscow Has a Mosque Controversy Too

File Photo: Muslim men pray during the Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bairam in Russian) holiday in Moscow. Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- The leaders of Moscow's 1.5-million strong Muslim community say they desperately need more places of worship.  However, a plan to build a new mosque has run into local opposition which is being fueled by nationalists calling for a "clean Moscow" without Muslims and foreigners.

Small trees are supposed to be keeping the Muslims out of Tekstilshchiki, a district in southeastern Moscow.  A young man sets to work with his shovel, pushing it into the earth with a determined kick.  Then he places a seedling into the hole and sprinkles earth over it.  Using her watering can, Maria Sotova pours some water onto the seedling. "We want a park here and not a mosque or a church or anything else," says the mother, who is here with her six-year-old son.  There are about a hundred residents of Tekstilshchiki gathered on this lawn -- and they want to prevent the start of construction on an Islamic religious center.

The Moscow media have already christened this patch of green "the Russian Ground Zero" in a reflection of strife over the mosque being built near Ground Zero, the site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood in New York City before the terror attack of 9/11. 

The country's largest online newspaper,, drew parallels with other European controversies surrounding Islam:  The burqa ban in France and the immigration debate now raging in Germany.  Europeans are frightened of Islam because the religion's values are utterly foreign to them, the article said.  "Now we are experiencing something similar in Moscow and St. Petersburg."

According to estimates by the Moscow council of muftis (equivalent to a council of deacons in the Christian faith), up to 20 million Muslims live in Russia today.  Muslims have dominated some parts of the country for centuries.  While the predominantly Muslim Republic of Tatarstan in the Volga region is regarded as moderate, guerrillas are fighting to set up an Islamic state in the northern Caucasus.  Islamic extremists were behind the suicide bomb attacks that shook the Russian capital this March and killed 40 people.

The planned mosque would only be the fifth in Moscow, even though this metropolis of 10.5 million has more than 1.5 million Muslim residents.  In comparison, Berlin, which has a proportion of Muslims amounting to less than a sixth of Moscow's, has at least six large mosques.  That is why the Moscow council of muftis wants more mosques to be built and says Moscow should have up to 40.

The Moscow mufti council, which is responsible for building the mosque, is convinced that nationalists are behind the protests against their house of worship. They say that the mosque will be built at the edge of the park anyway, leaving plenty of room for recreation and dog walkers. "The problem lies elsewhere," says Ildar Aljautdinov, the imam at Moscow's largest mosque. He warns that some Muslims may become radicalized if they don't have mosques to worship in. "We must build more mosques," he says. "Otherwise something bad will replace the religion."

Copyright 2010 ABC News Radio

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