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A journey into the religion, past and present, in Minsk, Belarus


Exploring an extraordinary Muslim diaspora in Europe’s most isolated country: the Tatar-Muslims of Belarus and the Minsk Mosque.

Minsk church of saints Simon and HelenaIn July 2017 we visited one of Europe’s most isolated and most unknown countries. “Belarus is a country in eastern Europe. Until it became independent in 1991, Belarus, formerly known as Belorussia or White Russia, was the smallest of the three Slavic republics included in the Soviet Union (the larger two being Russia and Ukraine). Belarus is a landlocked country bordered by Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest, by Russia to the north and east, by Ukraine to the south, and by Poland to the west. In area, it is roughly one-third the size of its southern neighbour, Ukraine.” (https://www.britannica.com/place/Belarus Accessed on 15 August 2018.

“After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than have any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration. Although Belarus agreed to a framework to carry out the accord, serious implementation has yet to take place. Minsk city hall, BelarusSince his election in July 1994 as the country’s first and only directly elected president, Aleksandr Lukashenko (Alyaxandr Lukashenka) has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means and a centralized economic system. Government restrictions on political and civil freedoms, freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religion have remained in place.” (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bo.html Accessed on 15 August 2018.) Minsk is the capital and largest city of Belarus. In 2013, it had a population of 2,002,600.

With regard to religions “about half of Belarusians consider themselves nonreligious or atheist. Roughly two-fifths of the population adheres to Eastern Orthodoxy, which, while not the official religion, maintains a privileged status in Belarus. Roman Catholics constitute the largest religious minority. Roman Catholicism is particularly influential in the western regions, especially in Hrodna. Tiny fractions of the population follow other forms of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. The Tatars are the predominant Muslim group.” (https://www.britannica.com/place/Belarus Accessed on 15 August 2018.)

As a historian and sociologist dealing with Islam and Muslim communities in Europe I was particularly interested in Tatars and their history and present situation during our trip.

According to the latest census in 2009 (http://pop-stat.mashke.org/belarus-ethnic2009.htm Accessed on 1 August 2018) 7316 Tatars lived in the Republic of Belarus. In Minsk, capital of the country 1547 people, in Minsk county 1239, in Brest county 725, in Vitebsk county 822, in Homel county 776, in Grodno county 1710 and in Mahilyov county 497 people lived. According to the 1999 Belarus census, 10.089 Tartars lived in the Republic of Belarus, meaning that the number of Tartars in the country decreased by about 2700 in the ten years preceding this. In Belarus, as in the neighboring Lithuania and Poland, the Tatars live in a dispersal. (Zoltán András: A fehérorosz tatárok társadalmi beágyazottsága. in: Kisebbségkutatás 11. évf. 2002. 3.sz. pp. 786-787. http://epa.oszk.hu/00400/00462/00015/pdf/786-787.pdf “The social embeddedness of the Belarussian Tatars.” in: Minority Research Accessed on 16 February 2018)

Residing in Belarus at present there are representatives of Azerbaijanian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Kurd, Turk, and Tatar nationalities making up a total of 45,000 Muslims in Belarus including Tatars.

Islam in Belarus was introduced by so-called Lipka Tatars in the 14th -16th centuries, and now also includes Muslim immigrants. The Islam in Belarus initially spread from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The process was encouraged by several Lithuanian princes, who invited the Tatar Muslim from the Crimea and Golden Horde as guards of state borders. Already in the 14th century the Tatars were settling into a more sedentary way of life. By the end of the 16th century over 100,000 Tatars had settled in Belarus and Lithuania, including those hired as guards, voluntary immigrants, and prisoners of war. The Tatars follow Sunni Islam. Interethnic marriages with Belarusians, Poles, Lithuanians, and Russians are common, but have not resulted in total assimilation.

Originating from different ethnic associations, Belarusian (and also Polish and Lithuanian) Tatars lost their native language over time and switched mainly into Belarusian, Polish and Russian. However, religious practice is conducted in Arabic. In 1994, the First All-Belarusian Congress of Muslims was held. As a result, the Muslim Religious Community of the Republic of Belarus (Muftiate) was founded. It has been headed by Dr. Ismail Aleksandrovich.

Mosques

First mosques appeared on the territory of Belarus during the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1994, the mosque in Slonim was opened, and in 1996 one in Smilovichi. In July 1997 in memory of the 600th anniversary of settlement of Tartars in Belarus, there took place a ceremony of opening a mosque in Novogrudok. In the 19th century the mosque in the town of Ivye was built; it is considered a monument of Belarusian wooden architecture. Today there are 12 functional mosques in Belarus and others are under construction. In 1997, the foundation stone was laid for a future mosque in Minsk. There were 27 Muslim communities in Belarus by 2002.

Minsk Mosque, Belarus

According to Mr. Kanapatsky, deputy chairman of the Islamic Association of Belarus, the Association concentrated its efforts on building a mosque in Minsk in the 2000s, as well as on renovating the mosque in Smilovichi and Muslim cemeteries throughout the country. Apart from Smilovichi, there are mosques in the towns of Ivye, Slonim, and Novogrudok in the Grodno region; in Kletsk in the Minsk region; and in Vidzy in the Vitebsk region. (http://www.muslimpopulation.com/Europe/Belarus/Islam%20in%20Belarus.php Accessed on 17 February 2018)

On Friday 11 November 2016, Presidents of Turkey and Belarus participated in the inauguration of Minsk Mosque in the eponymous capital of the eastern European country. The mosque, a replica of the original one built in the end of 19th century and destroyed during the Soviet era five decades ago, was built by Diyanet Foundation linked to Turkey’s state-run Presidency of Religious Affairs. Belarussian President Aleksander Lukashenko and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened the mosque in the ceremony that had originally been planned to take place in July but was postponed due to the failed coup attempt in Turkey. (https://www.beautifulmosque.com/Minsk-Mosque-in-Belarus Accessed on 20 February 2018)

“The decision to construct a stone mosque in Minsk was made in the end of 19th century. The construction lasted from 1900 to 1902. Sixty years later, the mosque was demolished. The old building was situated not far away from its current location. The new modern mosque is located at the intersection of Ignatenko and Griboyedov streets in a holy place. A Tatar cemetery was there in the old days. As we referred before, Belarusian Tatars are the largest group of the Muslim population in the country. Besides, other 32 Muslim groups migrated to Belarus over the years.

As was already mentioned, the new building is a larger version of the old Minsk mosque, destroyed in Soviet years. The original project was enlarged with a semi-basement floor for Sunday school, classrooms and Mufti’s study; there is also a museum. The entrance to the Minsk mosque is located on the side of the building. This is unusual because, as a rule, the entrance to a mosque should be located opposite to mihrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction to Mecca.

Minsk mosque, Belarus

The main prayer hall is divided into two parts: the part for men can sit 347 people and the part for women can welcome 165 persons. There is a balcony for 380 people above the main prayer hall.

“Muslim muftis say to me: “Look, your mosque is improperly built!”. I tell them I know, but I can do nothing about it”, Mufti says. He explains that the architect who designed the original project was not a Muslim. He just added the elements of Islamic architecture to the Christian principles of construction. “In our religion believers come in the mosque with their faces to Mecca, and here you can enter only from the side”, Mufti adds. Some of the internal element, like mihrab and minbar, were made in Turkey.

Now Belarusian Muslims are able to pray in the mosque. They can also come to the mosque to search for advice. Young people are able to get married in the mosque. There is a Sunday school as well. Those who do not read Arabic, have translated texts. There are versions of Quran in Russian, but now a group of enthusiasts are preparing a Belarusian translation of Holy Quran.

Tourists also have an opportunity to visit the mosque. It was completed using financial help from Turkey. The construction of the mosque was began in 2004 with the money from the Fund of the King of Saudi Arabia, but it was enough only for the basement and the lower part of the walls. Then the construction stopped. When Belarusian Muslims lost their patience, they asked for help from the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Turkey.

The full capacity of the new mosque is 1,500 worshippers. Today there are about a dozen of mosques in Belarus, but they are mainly located in small towns. Minsk Mosque is the biggest one in the country.” (http://belarusfeed.com/7-facts-about-minsk-mosque-that-will-be-open-by-belarus-and-turkey-presidents-today/ Accessed on 16 February 2018)

I and my wife visited Minsk Mosque on 15 July 2017, early morning. In the city almost no one knew where the mosque was. We asked the receptionist in our hotel, our guide, a taxi driver. Based on the address of the mosque, browsing the map for a long time, they adjusted us. Next morning we got up very early, walked on foot and found the place. The beautiful and imposing building provided a lasting visual experience. It was a remarkable day of my travelling activities.

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