Russia helps its Muslims take the journey to Mecca

Barred by the Soviets for decades from carrying out Islam's most sacred rite, Russian Muslims were among those traveling to Saudi Arabia to join haj.

Russia helps its Muslims take the journey to Mecca
Gulsine K. Fatakhudinova, a 56-year-old Tatar Muslim, came lugging suitcases to pray at the lime-green mosque in central Moscow — one of dozens of people who arrived one recent day bundled in the weighty coats, fur hats and other winter garb they would soon cast off, at least temporarily.

Barred by the Soviets for decades from carrying out Islam's most sacred rite, such pilgrims were among the tens of thousands of Russian Muslims traveling to Saudi Arabia to join the masses in Mecca for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, to one of Islam's holiest sites. Their numbers have swelled in the last several years thanks largely to Russia's growing wealth and increasing stability in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, including in Chechnya.

Ms. Fatakhudinova is making the journey for the second time.

"This year I am going for my mother, for my dead mother, who was unable to go on the hajj during her life," she said. She explained that her family had always been religious, even during the Soviet era, but had neither the means nor permission from the state to make the trip before her mother died.

"I am going for her," Ms. Fatakhudinova said, "so that before God, when we are resurrected, she will feel herself a hajji."

The Soviet government allowed just 18 people a year to make the trip, said Rushan R. Abbyasov, director of international relations at the Russian Council of Muftis. Now, the only restrictions on the number of pilgrims comes from Saudi Arabia, which is host to the hajj.

This year, the Saudis increased the quota for Russian pilgrims to 26,000 people from 20,000, and despite estimated costs of $2,000 to $3,000 a person for the trip, Mr. Abbyasov said all visas allotted for this year had been claimed. Chechnya is sending about 3,000 pilgrims for the five-day pilgrimage, which starts this year on Dec. 18.

Muslims who are financially and physically able are required to perform the hajj at least once in their lives, though many believe that a relative can complete the pilgrimage on behalf of someone who died or is chronically ill.

Islam is in a state of revival here after years of confinement to the kitchens and basements of the Soviet Union, which severely restricted the open practice of all religions.

Russia has about 4,000 mosques now, compared with about 90 in the waning days of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, Muslim groceries and stores selling Muslim fashions have appeared, and the first hospital catering to Muslims opened this month.

Fourteen million to 23 million Muslims live in this country of about 140 million people, making Islam the largest minority religion. They live mostly in the Caucasus and in two autonomous republics, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; there are also about two million Muslims living in Moscow.

The Kremlin has worked to facilitate the pilgrimage, part of a strategy to ward off potential unrest among the country's Muslims and monitor their activities, while also improving ties with Saudi Arabia, where Russia has budding economic interests. When President Vladimir V. Putin visited Saudi Arabia in February — the first Russian leader to do so in decades — his lobbying efforts helped persuade the Saudis to raise the quotas for Russian Muslims this year.

At a meeting with Russia's Muslim leaders in November, Mr. Putin pledged continued government assistance for the hajj.

The government has created a liaison office that offers pilgrims assistance with visas and transportation, and the state airline, Aeroflot, often gives pilgrims special rates. The government has also set up a $60 million fund to support Islamic culture, science and education, part of which is designated for state-accredited Muslim schools and universities.

The Russian press has reported recently that many security service personnel are among this year's pilgrims, evidence, some say, of a government effort to supervise Russian citizens while they are in Saudi Arabia. Officials and hajj organizers have denied that this is the case.

Most often, however, the Saudis and other Muslims gathered in Mecca for the hajj react to Russians with curiosity, Mr. Abbyasov said.

"A good many people are surprised that there are Muslims in Russia," he said.

The New York Times

Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Aralık 2007, 16:55