MOSCOW — Muslims gathered for Friday prayers at Moscow's central mosque on Friday said they were afraid and angry at a nationalist riot last week that saw hundreds make fascist salutes beside the Kremlin walls.
The chief imam at the mosque said that fewer people than usual had attended prayers, blaming fears after the violent riot, triggered by the shooting of a football fan in a fight with men from the Russian Caucasus.
Football fans and ultranationalists clashed with police on the central Manezh Square on December 11 in a protest ostensibly at police handling of the shooting of a Spartak Moscow football fan.
The unsanctioned rally quickly turned into a riot with hooded youths chanting racist slogans and beating up people from the Russian Caucasus and Central Asia.
Usually, thousands of worshippers roll out prayer rugs on the pavement outside the cramped mosque. But this Friday, all the worshippers stayed within the gates.
"Because of this situation, on the ordinary days this week there have been fewer people," imam Ildar Khazrat Alyautdinov told AFP. "Every day we can see there are noticeably fewer people.
"Of course there are fears over safety," said Alyautdinov. "There are fears for their lives, of course people are afraid."
He said he warned parishioners not to travel alone or go out at night.
The mosque has an eclectic congregation, ranging from fur-coated Muscovites to Central Asian migrant workers in tracksuits and thin jackets. The service is in both Russian and Arabic.
More than 20 million Muslims live in Russia, concentrated in Moscow and Saint Petersburg as well as in historically Muslim regions in the North Caucasus and close to the Urals. Migrant workers from Central Asia are another large group.
The sermon began with the preacher saying he was saddened by the riot and calling for Muslims to "move forward."
"It's sad, unpleasant because someone is trying to split up society, while we have always lived in a multi-confessional, multi-national society," the imam told AFP, calling the attackers "frozen inside, empty."
Following the riot, several people phoned the mosque warning of forthcoming skinhead attacks, the imam said.
"They are trying to scare us, but it won't work."
One worshipper from Tajikistan, Mukhamed Musayev, said he had experienced several racist attacks.
"We are afraid to walk alone at night. I've already seen with my own eyes someone being killed. And I also have been attacked, there were six people, skinheads."
Others said they wanted to fight back when they heard about the riot.
Worshippers said they believed the riot was not spontaneous and that nationalists simply used the death of Spartak Moscow fan Yegor Sviridov to push their own agenda.
"This was not simply a clash between youth groups, over Islam and Orthodox Christianity," said Taira Khabibulina, a Muscovite wrapped in a fur coat, who said she grew up with both Muslim and Christian parents.
"I think it was a planned act carried out by certain political circles that don't like us living in Russia, our ways, our culture, our traditions. Just as always, they want to interfere with our life and our culture and break it up."
"They needed a reason to riot," said Abdulla Abdullayev, 23, from Tajikistan. "That Spartak fan who was killed, it was just an excuse for them, so that they could attack and take action."
He pointed to protests in other cities.
"If it had been a simple reaction, it would just have been in Moscow. But it was in Rostov-on-Don, in Petersburg, in Samara, in other Russian cities."
He blamed murky political motives, saying: "It's all thought up by the government. They have their political moves. They are using this."
"In Russia... they teach their children: we are Russians. In this way they teach children hatred for Islam. Islam is not the religion that they think," Abdullayev claimed.
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