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Window on Eurasia: 5,000-Place Mosque Opens in Chechnya

The Muslims of Chechnya today marked the opening of their new central mosque, an enormous structure with five minarets capable of accommodating up to 5,000 worshippers at a time and a building that many of those who took part in the celebration hope marks the beginning of the restoration of traditional Chechen Islam.

Hosting Muslim leaders from throughout the northern Caucasus was newly-elected Chechen Mufti Sultan Mirzayev, who will serve as imam of this mosque and make it the headquarters for his Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Chechnya, various Russian news agencies, including Interfax and reported. 

Most of the funds for the construction of this mosque came from the Yamadayev family, whose members include the late Dzhabrail Yamadayev who was killed during the fighting in Chechnya and his brother R. Yamadayev who serves as a deputy in the Chechen parliament.

The family earlier paid for the building of four smaller mosques in other parts of Chechnya, but R. Yamadayev said that his family had used up almost all of its resources in order to build the Gudermes mosque, a building that some of the participants in today’s celebrations said was now “one of the most important” in Europe.

In the period since the first post-Soviet Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994, some 300 of the 350 mosques that had existed there at that time have been either completely destroyed or heavily damaged as a result of the fighting.

One consequence of the destruction of these mosques has been to reduce the influence of more traditionally-minded Muslim leaders in the parishes of this republic, thereby making its easier for other, more radical Muslims to gain not only a hearing from Chechens but also to recruit at least some of them to their cause.

In recent months, the Russian authorities have viewed the reconstruction of the network of mosques in Chechnya as an important component in their continuing struggle against the Chechen insurgents. And following his selection as mufti at the end of May, Sultan Mirzayev has worked to find funds to make this program a reality.

Some Russian commentators have expressed concern, however, that rebuilding mosques may be counterproductive, increasing the interest of Chechens in all kinds of Islam – including the most radical — and not just the traditional and more populat variety that Moscow and its supporters would like to see.

And thus they may not be entirely reassured by statements like that of Deputy Yamadayev today.  He told those assembled at Gudermes that “our spiritual rebirth must begin precisely in the mosques where spiritual leaders can bring the world of the Most High to their parishioners.

But the part of the Gudermes ceremony to which most Russians are likely to pay attention was something else:  Today, at the opening of the mosque there, the Russian pop singer Yulian announced that he was converting to Islam and taking the Muslim name Dzhabrail, RIA Novosti reported.

Not only is Yulian-Dzhabrail’s conversion likely to focus even more attention to a trend that many Russians find disturbing – the decision of Orthodox Russians to adopt  Islam —  but his popularity among younger Russians may mean that others in that age cohort will now be even more likely to follow his example. 

And to the extent that happens, the opening of Chechnya’s new and largest mosque may have an even greater impact on the Russian Federation than it will on that north Caucasus republic itself.