By: Anya Ardayeva
MOSCOW, Russia – The Russian capital Moscow is growing increasingly Islamic, as the number of Muslims in the city has increased to over 1.5 million in the past decade, according to Russia’s chief imams.
There are hundreds of mosques in Moscow, but not enough to accommodate the huge number of worshippers, forcing many to pray on the streets.
In 2015, more than 160,000 Muslims attended prayers marking the Eid holiday, according to the Moscow police.
“A large number of labor migrants come to our mosques and during holidays our mosques -- there are only four of them in Moscow now -- of course they are overcrowded and most of our believers pray outside, in the rain, in the sleet,” said Iman Rushan Abbyasov, deputy head of the Council of Muftis.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia had only 100 mosques left. Some 8,000 were built in the past 24 years – but not in Moscow. The official census data from 2010 suggests there are over 400,000 Muslims living in the Russian capital.
According to experts the number of Muslims in the city has grown dramatically in the past two decades due to increased migration from predominantly Muslim Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Russia's North Caucasus.
“The real number is definitely higher,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “This includes both Muslims who live here as well as registered migrants. We simply do not have exact statistics.”
Muftis put the number of Muslims in Moscow at 1.5 million. If they are right, the Russian capital has the second-largest Muslim population after Paris which, with 1.7 million Muslims, hosts the largest population of any European city.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has ruled out building more mosques, saying would be "over the top." He added that Muscovites are becoming irritated by people who speak a different language and have different customs.
The statement provoked anger among Muslims.
The opening in September of the Cathedral Mosque, which was Moscow’s main mosque before it closed for renovations a decade ago, is not expected to solve the shortage of prayer space, Muslims say. They explain that, like the other mosques, it can accommodate no more than 10,000 worshippers at a time.
In contrast to mosques, churches in Moscow have flourished in recent years.
There are currently 383 active Russian Orthodox churches in the capital. Five years ago, the city launched a "200 churches" program, aimed at building churches in every district of the city.
Many of these new buildings often remain empty, while more and more Muslims are seen praying in the streets outside mosques.