Ukraine: Tatars face problems building mosque

Ukraine: Tatars face problems building mosque

Chunks of limestone, by the tens of thousands, are strewn in piles on a waterside lot here where one of Europe's largest mosques is scheduled to rise. But the only soul around is a wizened caretaker in a tent, watching over what seems like another grandiose project gone bust with the financial crisis.

The trouble with the project, though, has nothing to do with money.

It is hinted at in the pieces of limestone themselves, many of which have been brought to the lot in protest and etched with the names of people who once lived here on the Crimean Peninsula, were deported by Stalin and never returned.

The mosque was supposed to signify the revival of those expelled, the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that suffered as wretched a fate as any under Communism. But with work held up by local authorities, the plan has instead stirred up a dispute involving politics, communal grievances, international tensions and historic traumas.

And so for the Crimean Tatars, the lot has become a site not for construction but for pilgrimages — and another reminder that here, as elsewhere across the former Soviet Union, the sins of the past will not be easily addressed.

"From each Muslim, one stone," Refat Chubarov, a Tatar leader, said the other day as he offered an impromptu tour of the deserted lot.

Mr. Chubarov explained that for months, Tatars have been asked to deposit pieces of limestone on the lot, each costing less than a dollar, to demonstrate their displeasure. Thousands have done so, with many creating mini-memorials by embellishing the limestone with the names of long-dead relatives. The stones are generally 15 or 20 inches square and 7 inches deep.

The mosque, which is to have space for a few thousand worshipers, was approved in 2004 by local officials. They agreed on a prime location at 22 Yaltinskaya Street in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea that is one of the most celebrated regions of the former Soviet Union.

The mosque project was to cost more than $10 million, most of which was to be paid by Turkish and other foreign donors, Mr. Chubarov said.

But in 2008, the Simferopol city council refused to grant final approval for the project, voicing concerns about its environmental impact because the site is near a reservoir. Officials said that traffic would overwhelm neighborhood streets and that noise from the mosque would bother patients at a nearby cancer hospital.

The city council, which is controlled by ethnic Russians, said its stance was not influenced by ethnic or religious hostility. It suggested other locations for the mosque.

"The mosque will be built, but only after taking into consideration the views of the public," said Simferopol's mayor, Gennady Babenko.

But Tatar leaders said they did not believe that the city would follow through on other sites. They said they doubted that the typical not-in-my-backyard complaints were genuine, asserting that local politicians simply did not want a prominent mosque in Simferopol.


Source: NY Times

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