The mosque is a central part of Russia’s efforts to develop its own system of Muslim religious education and training to counteract extremists seeking recruits, Putin said.
MOSCOW — The most elaborate mosque ever built in Moscow, a city that is home to one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in Europe, was opened Wednesday by President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, in brief remarks, called the new, modern mosque the biggest in Europe and said that it was a worthy addition to a capital and a country built on the idea of uniting different nationalities and faiths. The mosque is a central part of Russia’s efforts to develop its own system of Muslim religious education and training to counteract extremists seeking recruits, the president said.
“Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State actually cast a shadow on the great global religion of Islam,” he said. “Their ideology is built on hate.”
The opening is a singular event for Moscow, where a wave of bombing attacks by Muslim extremists that started around 2000 generated a wave of animosity toward the faith that has never entirely ebbed.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- White House offers new tax credit to help spur vaccinations
- The girl in the Kent State photo and the lifelong burden of being a national symbol
- Your COVID post-vaccine activities safety guide, including gyms, shopping, taking an Uber and more
- Sleeping too little in middle age may increase dementia risk, study finds
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
“Finally, Moscow, which lays claim to the title of the biggest Muslim city in Europe, has a big mosque,” said Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on Islam at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It shows that the center of Islamic life in the Russian Federation is in Moscow.”
Mosque construction has long been fraught here — this project took a decade to come to fruition. The biggest chunk of the construction costs, about $170 million, came from a wealthy Russian oil tycoon, mosque officials said, but foreign governments also donated. They included Turkey, Kazakhstan and even the Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, gave $25,000. He spoke at the inauguration, as did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey; both criticized recent Israeli attacks on Palestinian worshippers.
Known as the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, the grand structure holds 10,000 people on three stories and replaced a much smaller one built in 1904. The previous two-story building — with a squat dome and two stunted minarets — could hold only 1,000 people.
There are just three other official mosques in a city whose Muslim population is estimated to be as high as 2 million. No exact public numbers exist.
That would mean Muslims make up about 16 percent of the population in this city of 12.5 million, and that puts the capital in contention for the title of most Muslims in Europe, not counting Turkey. Estimates about the number of Muslims in the greater Paris area, often described as having the largest concentration in the European Union, range from 1.2 million to 1.7 million. (Russian census numbers have long been considered a bit dubious, and about 10 years ago, the government stopped counting according to ethnicity, which was broadly used to estimate religious affiliation.)
Given the tens of thousands of Muslims who pray on city streets during major holidays, Moscow appears grievously short on mosques. All four could accommodate just 10,000 worshippers. The new mosque virtually doubles the space available.
Often, 60,000 or more show up at this mosque on major holidays, like Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated on Thursday in Russia and will be used as the occasion to inaugurate the mosque. The building is tucked into a corner near one of Moscow’s stadiums left over from the 1980 Olympics, and an adjacent parking lot now has the capacity for an overflow crowd of at least 20,000.
“It is strange that in such a big city like Moscow there are only four mosques, and even this one does not solve the problems in terms of space,” said Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the Kremlin’s human rights council who concentrates on religious issues.
Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the council of muftis in Russia, has suggested that every Moscow neighborhood should have one mosque — meaning about 20 to 30 new ones. With at least 40 underground mosques estimated to be working in apartments, the Muslim hierarchy argues that more official mosques would help curb recruiters for the Islamic State or other extremist groups.
About 2,400 Russians are fighting for the Islamic State, Sergei Smirnov, the deputy director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main security organization, said last week, with at least an additional 3,000 having joined from Central Asia.
Russia has built up its own military forces in Syria in what Putin has described as part of an effort to create an international military coalition to fight the Islamic State. Others, however, see it as an attempt to reassert the military power lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Moscow, plans to construct just a couple more mosques in recent years met such vehement public protests that they were canceled. The fact that sophisticated criminal gangs have a hand in many Moscow real estate deals does not help either, Shevchenko said, as they tend to favor shopping malls or office buildings that generate revenue.
Ildar Hazrat Alyautdinov, the senior imam at the Moscow Cathedral Mosque and the mufti of Moscow, said, “One reason why mosques don’t get built is public opinion, unfortunately.”
“When we studied the situation, we found that those who initiated such a mood were from the Russian Orthodox Church,” he added. “Their activists would rile people up — going door to door telling people that the mosque should not be built. Maybe it is not their official position but the work of activists.”
The mayor or Moscow, Sergei S. Sobyanin, has gone on the record opposing new mosques. Spot checks of worshippers’ identity cards indicated that many of them were not legal Moscow residents, he said in a 2012 interview. “So it is not a fact that the construction of mosques is needed, namely in Moscow,” the mayor said.
On Tuesday night, the state-run television channel Rossiya 24 broadcast a 30-minute preview of the mosque opening. In it, Gainutdin, the Russian Muslim leader, went out of his way to present the building as an organic element of Moscow’s religious architecture.
The dome — of the onion family if not exactly an onion, and encircled with an inscription from the Quran — was designed and clad in gold in order to fit in with the many gilded church domes in Moscow, he said. The mosque is a bit of an architectural mishmash, built from grayish green stone, with one of its two minarets meant to resemble a famous Kremlin tower. Design elements were drawn from Turkish mosques and various indigenous Russian traditions, Gainutdin said, but the overall effect was unique.
“It is something special to Moscow, a Russian-Muslim style,” he said.
Recently, most attention on Islam in Russia has focused on Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the contentious leader of Chechnya, the southern republic where Russia fought two wars against Islamic extremists in the 1990s. He has tried to cast himself as the leader of all Russian Muslims and encouraged traditional practices like polygamy in his republic, even though it is banned in the Russian Federation.
Senior Muslim officials and other analysts noted that hostility toward Muslims had diminished somewhat in the past 18 months given the war in Ukraine and the official vilification of the United States.
“Now that we hate Ukrainians and people from the United States, we have suspended our fears concerning Muslims,” Natalya V. Zubarevich, a demographics expert at Moscow State University, said with some irony. “They will come back at some future time. The authorities found another enemy, something fresh.”