Among the shelves lined with Arabic texts and Quran quotations in the imam’s office hang plans for a new mosque. It is snow-white and round with arched vaults. The building could become the main attraction of the small city, but residents have resisted the project.

Opening the
Islamic center in Volzhsky
was also difficult. On two occasions city officials took back land from the Union of Muslims they had earlier allocated for the center.

So when city authorities offered Kifakh Bata dilapidated barracks on Green Island, on the outskirts of town, the imam gladly accepted. Built as temporary accommodation for Soviet workers, the barracks had for decades been without running water or central heating. But anything was better than a basement.

Undesirables

“When we came here, I said that within one month, which was the first Friday of Ramadan, I would give my first sermon here,” Kifakh Bata said. “Nobody believed me. But everyone – congregants, students, employees of the center and activists – gave it their best effort.”

“We remodeled the main room and patched the roof. And on the first Friday of Ramadan, we held the first namaz,” he said, using the Arabic for prayer.

Volzhsky has a population of more than 300,000. Approximately 50,000 make up the city’s “ummah,” or Muslim community. That community numbers 200,000-250,000 over the entire region, around one-tenth of the general population.

“It is unfair that so many people cannot pray in dignified conditions,” Kifakh Bata said.

By contrast, not a single Orthodox church stood in the region in the 1990s, but four large churches have been built since – and that is not counting those in small parishes. There is even a men’s monastery that also stands on Green Island.

“I think it is this attitude towards Islam, and not only in our country, that prompts some Muslims to leave for Syria and fight on the side of the self-proclaimed Caliphate,” said Kifakh Bata.