PETROPAVLOSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia — When Usman Usmanov laid the cornerstone of the first mosque in the Russian Far East last summer, he was thrilled to see the start of a spiritual center for 30,000 Muslims in the Kamchatka region.

But when the chairman of the Muslim Communities Union opened the next issue of the newspaper Novaya Kamchtskaya Pravda, he was stunned at the hostility toward the mosque.

The paper stated, “It is not a mosque; it is a stone of conflict which is laid today by irresponsible bureaucrats led by the mayor, who last Saturday became ‘an honorary Tatar’ ” — a reference to the Mongols that conquered Russia in the 13th century.

Over the past year, Usmanov, a physical-education teacher from the Russian republic of Dagestan, has learned just how deep are the passions surrounding the mosque. His car was blown up, anonymous callers repeatedly threatened his mother and the media have sustained the drumbeat of hostility.

And now opponents — including political parties, the Russian Orthodox Church and public organizations — are attempting to organize a referendum to let residents decide whether they want a mosque in their neighborhood.

The problem of anti-Muslim bias is widespread in Russia. In the Far Eastern seaport of Vladivostok, the mayor’s office halted the construction of a mosque last year because church officials objected that it would stand on higher ground than any Orthodox house of worship. In Moscow, police worried about the potential for terrorism from the breakaway republic of Chechen launched Operation Whirlwind, which Muslims say amounts to a policy of searching and often detaining any dark-skinned person.

The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of worship to Russia’s traditional faiths, including Islam. But over the past decade, the Orthodox Church has become a de facto state religion, and other faiths say they are often placed at a disadvantage.

In Kamchatka, Muslims are outraged that voters are being asked to show their hands on a matter of religious freedom. Usmanov said city authorities earmarked the land for a mosque in 1993, and the Muslims have never made secret their plans for a worship center.

“Now when we have invested so much money into the project and run up some debts, they want us to move the construction elsewhere,” he said.

On a peninsula with approximately 400,000 people, Muslims from 15 ethnic groups and former Soviet republics live here, many of them retired military men who settled in Kamchatka after their service here ended. Yet the nearest mosque is in the eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk, 5,000 km away.

Muslims here say a Kamchatka mosque would have a special spiritual significance because it lies in the world’s furthest eastern time zone, where each new day begins. Muslims’ first morning prayers would begin in this place, they say.

Russian Orthodox Bishop Ignaty, however, insists that Kamchatka and its 260-year-old capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, is a traditionally Orthodox region and there are few parishioners for the kind of mosque the Muslims are building. While claiming to have nothing to do with the referendum, he has openly encouraged attempts to block construction.

Activists from several political parties, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Slavic National Patriotic Union, appealed to the city council to hold the referendum on the day of gubernatorial elections this November.

“The decision to build a mosque and a Muslim spiritual center in an ethnic Orthodox district, where Muslims do not live compactly, is a direct insult to the religious and civil feelings of the Slavic population,” the group wrote in a statement to the council in May.

According to a transcript of the council’s taped meeting, the group’s leader, Alexander Megesh, said, “With a mosque built here, a flow of Muslims to Kamchatka will increase. Considering their mind-set, they won’t let us live normally here.”

This led an official from Memorial, a group devoted to persevering the memory of Stalinist repression, to write to a local newspaper asking when the multiethnic nation of Russia had become an Orthodox country.

The council declined the request to allow a referendum, following the letter of Gov. Vladimir Biryukov, who said the local council is not authorized to announce such referendums and this kind of question “is limiting the well-known constitutional human rights for freedom of belief.”

But the group will fight the decision in court, activist Vladimir Pugachyov said in a phone interview. The group also plans to poll the residents, and depending on the result, might organize mass protests.

Yet the district’s residents themselves are not necessarily in agreement with the antimosque movement. “It won’t bother me,” said Irina Petlyakova, 37. “I visited many countries and I saw that churches of various kinds peacefully exist together.”

Marat Akmishev, who comes from the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan and served for 30 years as a navy officer, said Muslims understand the problems caused by the Chechen war and are trying to avoid raising police suspicions. The union has created a Council of the Wise to solve conflict and to help Muslim soldiers who find themselves based in this remote region. Since doing so, the crime rates among Muslims has gone down, he said.

After years of serving in the Soviet and then Russian Navy, Akmishev is angry that his rights as a citizen seem to matter so little.

“It is insulting that they keep dividing us into [ethnic] Russians and non-Russians,” he said. “We all are citizens of Russia.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.