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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dwindling Muslims At Norilsk's Mosque

ReutersA woman walking past the Nurd Kamal mosque in Norilsk this month.
NORILSK -- Mukum Sidikov's grandfather left Norilsk after surviving Stalin's labor camps.

Sidikov, caretaker of the world's most northerly mosque, retraced his grandfather's footsteps in search of well-paid work in the Arctic.

Now he estimates that the city is home to about 50,000 Muslims -- just under one-quarter of the region's population of about 210,000. Most are from Azerbaijan and the republic of Dagestan and work as traders or construction workers. But as pay levels no longer compare so favorably with other cities and Norilsk restricts access for foreigners, Sidikov says fellow Muslims no longer come here.

"The population is getting smaller. People are leaving," said Sidikov, 40, an ethnic Uzbek born and raised in Kyrgyzstan.

The Nurd Kamal mosque stands exposed on the edge of modern Norilsk, where temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius. Polar winds whip its golden roof and snowdrifts pile against the turquoise walls in winter.

"People work for kopeks. They come here and lose their health. Every second person is ill," Sidikov said.

A city built on one of the world's richest metals deposits, Norilsk's first smelter was built by gulag prisoners in the 1930s, and today three plants send smoke thick with sulfur into the air. The city was last year named among the world's 10 most polluted places by independent environmental action group The Blacksmith Institute. Its main employer, Norilsk Nickel, is investing heavily in cutting emissions.

There are more than 20 million Muslims in Russia, about 14 percent of the population.

Central Asians and Dagestanis are likely to be Sunni, while those from Azerbaijan are most likely to be Shiite. There is no antagonism between the sects in Norilsk, and many Muslims from the former Soviet Union are not among the strictest practitioners of Islam.

"There are many Muslims, but few come to the mosque. They work all day and in the evening they are tired," Sidikov said.

The mosque, opened in 1998, was built by Mukhtad Bekmeyev, an ethnic Tatar and Norilsk native now residing in the Black Sea city of Sochi. He named the mosque after his parents and will pay for its restoration this year.

Sidikov, clean-shaven and wearing a green skullcap, left the Kyrgyz city of Osh to find work. He served in the Soviet army in Moscow and lived in two other Siberian cities before arriving in Norilsk seven years ago.

High wages relative to the rest of the country attracted workers from across the Soviet Union to Norilsk as the city's mines and smelters grew.

Sidikov says an average monthly wage of 25,000 to 30,000 rubles ($960 to $1,155) is no longer enough to live comfortably. Not only Muslims are leaving: Norilsk's total population is dropping by about 5,000 people per year. Non-Russians, mostly from Azerbaijan and former Soviet republics in Central Asia, have found Norilsk a more difficult place to enter since 2002, after travel restrictions on foreign citizens were restored. They now need special permission to visit Norilsk.

While Norilsk Nickel and its outgoing chief executive Mikhail Prokhorov have unveiled a plan to retain the city's skilled workers and attract new faces, Sidikov says nothing is being done to help Muslims.

But Norilsk's Muslims, he says, have integrated well into the wider community and suffer little discrimination. Sidikov keeps the mosque open late every evening for those wishing to study the Quran. About 500 to 600 people typically attend Friday prayers. "Muslims should come to the mosque at least once a week," Sidikov said. "We don't get that here."