By Paul Goble
Even Russian Orthodox leaders acknowledge that in Russia’s northern capital, there are more practicing Muslims than there are practicing Orthodox Christians, given that one-third of the city’s 1.2 million Muslims attend prayers every day, despite the fact that there are only two official mosques and two official prayer rooms in the city.
Most of the Muslims – including both the 800,000 longtime residents of St. Petersburg and 400,000 migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus – are thus forced to attend unofficial, unsupervised, and often radical underground religious facilities, a pattern that carries with it risks for the city as a whole.
In an article for the KavkazPolit portal, journalist Anna Yalovkina reports that St. Petersburg’s Muslims thought this was changing when a rumor swept through their ranks that the city administration was about to allow the opening of new mosques and prayer rooms so that it would be ready for Ramadan (kavpolit.com/articles/neprozrachnyj_islam_peterburga-25953/).
That rumor, widely disseminated in regional media (see, for example, fontanka.ru/2016/05/16/074/), turned out to be false. The local Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) quickly put out the word that it had no information about any plans for what some had called “’transparent Islam’” in St. Petersburg, Yalovkina reports.
Indeed, she adds, the MSD said that it had received word that the local administration had refused to give spaces to Muslims for prayer rooms in the marketplaces and elsewhere, describing such a step as “’inexpedient.’” As a result, “the majority of the city’s musallahs will remain in the underground.”
That is because the two officially registered mosques have space for only 9,000 Muslims to pray and the two officially registered prayer rooms have space for only 2,000 more. That means that every day, more than 380,000 Muslims in St. Petersburg are praying at home, in the streets, or, in many cases, in underground mosques.
Rinat Valiyev, the head of the Mecca Islamic Community, says that his city needs at a minimum eight to ten major mosques that would hold up to 10,000 believers each as well as prayer houses so that Muslims could pray without disturbing anyone else.
According to him, “’even Orthodox priests at conferences admit that there are many more religious Muslims in Petersburg than religious Orthodox. Among Christians, only three percent go to Church, many don’t know the Bible, and enter churches only to burn a candle and give tribute to traditions.” Moreover, most churches are “half-empty” even on religious holidays.
The city’s Muslims agree with him, Yalovkina says, and they thought they had a breakthrough in 2014 when the city took up the issue of building more mosques. But a small number of anti-Muslim activists held demonstrations and intimidated Smolny into rejecting the idea. The influence of these activists continues.
In recent months, they have been assisted by the actions of the police and the OMON which routinely raid mosques and prayer houses and expel from the city gastarbeiters. As a result, Muslim leaders have been disinclined to protest lest they attract the unwanted attention of the powers that be.
Their silence, however, Yalovkina suggests, does not mean they agree; and the refusal of the authorities to open more mosques and prayer rooms means that there will be more Muslims praying on the streets in Ramadan and more attending mosques where the messages of the mullahs and imams are likely to be increasingly politicized as a result.