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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tatar Unity Summit Deepens Moslem Schism

KAZAN, Central Russia -- Amid high passions, Tatarstan's fractured Moslem community met over the weekend to end a six-year schism by electing a new mufti, or spiritual leader.

But the attempt by Tatarstan President Minitimer Shamiyev to restore unity to the republic's 1 million Moslems looked to have backfired: The two rival muftis ousted Saturday refused to step down, and commentators predicted a new wave of radical Islamic nationalism as a result.

Two rival muftis, Farid Salman and the more radical Gabdullah Galiullah, are claiming the status of spiritual leader of this semi-autonomous republic on the Volga River.

A unification congress, or Kurultai, attended by 718 Moslem delegates from all over Tatarstan on Saturday, merged the two rival bodies and elected the government-backed candidate, Gusman Iskhakov, as the republic's new mufti with a resounding 430 votes.

But Galiullah and Salman, said they did not recognize the decision of the congress, claiming delegates had been pressured by Shamiyev's administration into voting for Iskhakov. They said they have no intention of dissolving their rival Moslem bodies, or muftiates.

"It has legitimized the schism," said Alexei Malashenko, a leading Islam scholar in Moscow who is an associate with the Carnegie Foundation. "On one hand, the official, moderate Islam has emerged; on the other hand, it gives a chance for a very radical Moslem opposition to emerge."

The authoritarian Shamiyev has until now performed a delicate balancing act, promoting a moderate brand of Islam while trying not to alienate more radical believers.

The Kurultai, however, appeared to have driven some Moslems into the camp of die-hard nationalists, who argue that Moslem Tatars should reclaim from Russia the territory that was controlled by Mongol hordes in the Middle Ages.

"On the wave of these radical political forces, Galiullah may radicalize his views, and that concerns us," Ravil Gainutdin, mufti of Central Russia and chairman of the council of Russian muftis said Monday.

Galiullah, who was elected leader of Tatarstan's Moslems in 1992 on a wave of strong Tatar nationalism, has close ties with radical nationalist politicians.

Fauzia Bairamova, leader of the radical nationalist Ittifak party, said her followers would be backing Galiullah.

"Not a single leader of the national movement was invited" to the Kurultai, said Bairamova speaking by telephone from the Tatarstan city of Naberezhniye Chelny.

Her party issued a statement condemning the congress as illegitimate and stage-managed by the government. Bairamova said she continues to recognize Galiullah as mufti and will continue to work with him.

Galiullah contended on the weekend that the delegates were handpicked and instructed how to vote by their local authorities. Delegates interviewed during the congress would not confirm that they had come under pressure from the government.

At Saturday's Congress, Shamiyev took his seat beside Tatarstan's red and green national flag along with the 34-member presidium comprised of Moslem clergy wearing white turbans and long colorful robes. Above them hung a calligraphic depiction of a line from the Koran. "Hold by Allah's rope all, and do not divide," it said in Arabic.

Afterward, Shamiyev's government said the Kurultai had healed Tatarstan's schism. Rinat Nabiev, chairman of the Tatarstan government's council for religious affairs, said Monday that by running for mufti, Galiullah and Salman had agreed to drop their differences.

"Whatever they say today, the will of the delegates is unity," Nabiev said.

The government can suppress the schism -- for the time being at least. When religious communities undergo re-registration this year according to Russia's new law on religious associations, it is expected that only communities that are part of Iskhakov's muftiate will be granted official status.