Feb 04, 2008

Tatarstan: An Oasis of Tolerance in the Federation

For centuries Tatarstan has been a melting pot of cultures and religions, now it represents a beacon of tolerance across the Russian Federation.

For centuries Tatarstan has been a melting pot of cultures and religions, now it represents a beacon of tolerance across the Russian Federation.

Below is an article published by Russia Today :

Tatarstan has been a part of Russia since the middle of the XVI century. The region is mainly Muslim, but ethnic Russians make up almost 40% of Republic's population.

Located 800 kilometres east of Moscow on the river Volga, the Republic's capital Kazan is one of Russia's largest cities. And with population of over a million people, it’s a major industrial and cultural centre.

Over 50% of the population are Islamic, making it the most northern Muslim region in the world. With over a 1000 mosques in the republic, Minarets dominate the skyline.

High up in the walls of the ancient Kremlin sits Kul Sharif, one of Europe’s largest mosques. Here you can find what is called Euroislam - true to the central tenets of the faith but widely touted as more democratic and tolerant than other branches of the religion.

Key in promoting these qualities are young Imams, like the Kul-Sharif mosque Imam, Rustem Hazzarat. At just 31-years-old he says youngsters feel they can talk to him more easily about their problems. His youth adds an extra dimension to tackling social issues with religious leaders from other faiths.

“We have some joint efforts regarding drugs, safe sex, we make statements, give ideas - the most precious thing for us is human life and we need to protect the human soul,” he says.

It’s an important city for Christians too, who make pilgrimages to the religious icon, our Lady of Kazan. Muslims too, come to admire it.

On the outskirts of Kazan, museum can be found which represents all religions - inspired by one man’s travels across the globe for spiritual enrichment. All he has learnt, he is trying to share - in his architectural homage to numerous belief systems: Buddhist, Animist, Jewish, Catholic - all are welcome here.

It is an incredible project and one that is typical of what’s happening in Tatarstan. But where does this tolerance come from?

“I don’t like the word tolerance - it’s more like friendship among nations - it’s a real surprise but it’s all because of our ancient traditions. Our republic is an example,” Archbishop Vladika Anastacie, Head of Tatarstan Orthodox Churches says.

This love has been here for centuries. Russian Tatar Muslims always aim towards education to create something beautiful like we have here. We almost lost our traditions during the soviet union, but people kept faith in their heart,” agrees Mufti Gusman Hazzarat of the Muslim Council of Tatarstan.

Faith flourished after the collapse of communism, but a lack of religious education during the previous 70 years led to a poor understanding of the Muslim faith. In the 1990s, Imams from outside Tatarstan came with their own brand of Islam. Misinterpretations brought on mistrust, and extremism.

In response Religious schools were built, along with theological colleges for both faiths. A university which was the first of its kind in Russia is helping train students - from Tatarstan to Turkey - to become Imams; learned leaders in a diverse community.

Students are eager to learn about their friends faiths. They argue that any problems in their society are more likely to be related to ethnicity.

And it turns out that “nobody cares about ethnic groups apart from when you are choosing a wife”, according to Bulat, one of the students.

Bulat’s comment is illuminating. Although fewer and fewer people care about what religious persuasion there friends are - just a quarter of marriages here are of mixed faith.

Leisan, a Tatar, and her husband Dmitry, a Russian, are one such couple. Married for 17 years, they say it’s becoming more common and more socially acceptable than when they met.

“It all depends on the family. But still we first applied for our marriage license and then told our parents. We had a normal civil wedding. All our relatives were there and it was a very happy occasion,” Leisan recalls.