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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Believers Clash Over Beslan Memorial

Plans to build a memorial to the 333 hostages killed three years ago in the Beslan school attack have sparked a conflict between Christians and Muslims in the region.

The local Russian Orthodox diocese says it will build a church in the grounds of Beslan's school No. 1 to commemorate the victims -- half of them children -- killed in a clash between insurgents and government troops.

But a leading Muslim cleric has accused the Orthodox church of trying to hijack a national tragedy by building a memorial that he said would exclude the more than 20 million Muslims in the country.

"It is not acceptable to present this tragedy as the tragedy of followers of only one religion," Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Russian Muftis, said in a statement. "We need a monument on this site that symbolizes a national tragedy, without any religious undertones, where everyone can come and shed their tears."

Gainutdin is an outspoken Muslim leader, and other senior clerics have not spoken out about the memorial plans.

But the dispute has exposed faultlines between the communities which, despite a conflict between Moscow and rebels in Chechnya, have had largely smooth relations. Russia is home to the biggest Muslim community in Europe.

Wrangling over the memorial could also aggravate already raw divisions between Muslims and Christians in the region.

North Ossetia, which includes Beslan, has a predominantly Christian population, and many of them blame their Muslim neighbors for the bloodbath: the hostage-takers were Islamist militants from Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The local Russian Orthodox diocese said it plans to build the church next to the school gymnasium, the spot where many of the hostages died after a bomb fixed to a basketball hoop exploded, triggering a firefight.

A spokesman for the diocese said a church was the memorial that the people of Beslan had chosen. "It is not a case of someone coming along and making this decision. It is the decision of the people who were hostages and whose children died ... and it should be respected," said the spokesman, Yevgeny Bronsky.

Asked about Muslims' reaction to the plan he said: "We have not noticed this issue dividing anyone in Beslan."

The administration of North Ossetia contradicted the church, saying consultations on what form the memorial would take were still being conducted.

"The people of Beslan ... will review the proposed options and will make the final choice," it said in a statement.

Since the tragedy, the wrecked shell of the gym has become a makeshift shrine, with candles on the floor and photographs of the victims pinned to the walls.