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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mosque Project Embroils Far East Town

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Far East -- When local Moslems laid the cornerstone of what they hoped would be the first mosque in the Russian Far East last summer, they did not expect that, within a day, the project would become the focus of a contentious religious and political struggle.

The opponents of the ambitious construction project f which has been criticized by local media, the Russian Orthodox Church and political groups f are attempting to organize a referendum asking residents of the city's Gorizont district to decide whether they want a mosque in their neighborhood.

The project's organizers say they are outraged that people are being asked to vote on a basic matter of religious freedom. Usman Usmanov, chairman of the Moslem Communities Union, said city authorities set aside the land for a mosque in 1993, and its intended purpose had always been known.

"Now when we've invested so much money in the project and have run up some debts, they want us to move construction elsewhere," he said.

Usmanov estimated the project's cost at $1.5 million, adding that organizers have already invested 1.5 million rubles ($53,821) and have outstanding contracts totaling another 1 million rubles.

The clash comes at a time of increased hostility toward Moslems in general, in light of last fall's bombings f which law enforcement agencies have blamed on Moslem terrorists f and the war in Chechnya. Local Moslems said that last year Usmanov's car was blown up, and police raided his organization's office and arrested people from the Caucasus without filing charges or obtaining warrants from prosecutors.

Kamchatka, a region of about 400,000, is home to approximately 30,000 Moslems of 15 nationalities f many of them former military men who settled here after service. Despite their large population, the nearest mosque is in Irkutsk, 5,000 kilometers away.

But opponents of the mosque say its construction could spark ethnic conflict.

Speaking on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church, the city's bishop, Ignaty, said Kamchatka and its capital, Petropavlovsk, is a traditionally Orthodox Christian region, and the mosque will have few parishioners. The bishop said he has played no part in organizingthe referendum, but he has openly supported the plan to block construction.

"I have nothing against the mosque as such," Ignaty said, "but the newspapers suggest a mosque in a Slavic neighborhood may cause interethnic strife." He asked Moslems to reconsider the location of the mosque.

Much of the local press has been covering the project in a hostile key. The day after the cornerstone was laid, Novaya Kamchatskaya Pravda wrote: "It is not a mosque but a stone of conflict that is laid today by irresponsible bureaucrats."

Activists from several groups, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party and the Slavic National Patriotic Union, have asked the city council to hold the referendum together with gubernatorial elections in November.

"The decision to build a mosque ? in an ethnic [Russian] Orthodox district, where there is no concentration of Moslem residents, is a direct insult to the religious and civic feelings of the Slavic population," the group wrote in a statement in May.

According to a transcript of a City Council meeting where the issue was discussed, the group's leader, Alexander Megesh, said: "With a mosque built here, the flow of Moslems to Kamchatka will increase. Considering their mindset, they won't let us live normally here."

The City Council had rejected the referendum request after a letter from Governor Vladimir Biryukov said the council is not authorized to announce such referendums and the proposal "limits the well-known constitutional human right to freedom of religion."

The group plans to argue the decision in court, activist Vladimir Pugachyov said in a telephone interview.

Yet the neighborhood's residents are not united in supporting the anti-mosque movement. Several people contacted by telephone said they don't mind having a mosque nearby. "It won't bother me," said Irina Petlyakova, 37. "I've visited many countries, and I've seen that churches of various kinds peacefully coexist."