Passions run high over Tallinn mosque plans

  • 2001-02-01
  • Aleksei Gunter
Controversial Azeri businessman Habib Guliyev intends to enrich Tallinn's outline with the largest mosque in northern Europe. But not all of his religion compatriots agree, Aleksei Gunter reports.

In Estonia, there is quite a variety of religions to choose from, although historically Christians dominate the landscape of local faiths. Beautiful medieval churches make the silhouette of Tallinn special. But now the shape of the capital's skyline might be altered, and not everybody accepts this idea.

Habib Guliyev, businessman and chairman of the Estonian Azerbaijan Center, has begun promoting his pet project - to build the largest mosque in northern Europe right here in the city center. Tallinn's Mayor Juri Mois has met Guliyev and both claim that Tallinn would only benefit from the project.

According to Mois, Tallinn would get at least 100 million kroons ($5.93 million) in direct investment. This would be made by Guliyev and would be earmarked for the city's infrastructure. The mosque project, meanwhile, has an approximate budget of $40 million.

Guliev initially intended to build the mosque near the Song Festival grounds, a historical sight in Tallinn related to the development of Estonia's national culture in the 19th century. Sensing a hostile reaction, Mois suggested it be tucked away in the northeastern suburb of Lasnamae, and this decision so far stands.

Call to prayer

Ilgizar Sadiyk, a spokesman for the Estonian community of Muslims, says that about 5,000 Muslims live in Estonia.

"But the concept of being a Muslim means being humble to the Most High, the Allah. There are less than 1,500 of these Muslims in Estonia," said Sadiyk.

This is not the first time local Muslims have come up with plans to build a mosque in Tallinn. In 1989, a young man named Farhad Heidarli put forward a detailed project, but this was quickly quashed by Soviet authorities.

Before a mosque is built, there are more fundamental issues to consider. The Islamic community has still not found a sponsor to translate the Koran into Estonian. This would require significantly less money than building a mosque.

According to unconfirmed data from the Chechen community of Estonia, a mosque and Muslim cemetery once existed in Tallinn. But they were destroyed during World War II.

A mosque is a sacred complex with a library, a medrese (ecclesiastical academy), a kitchen, a hostel and wash-stands for pilgrims. While Islam does not prohibit the construction of a temple if a person wishes to do so, anyone planning a mosque in Tallinn should avoid thinking large, said Seifullen.

"The sum mentioned by Guliyev is enormous. If he really had the money, he would have bought any land he wanted already," said Seifullen.

Seifullen said that if a large mosque is built the Islamic congregation could not afford the ongoing communal expenses.

"I know what it takes for some congregations to pay for electricity. The active part of the Islamic community here consists mostly of older people with a lower than average income," said Seifullen.

Holy war of words

Political parties are yet to warm to the idea of a huge mosque on their doorstep. The Tallinn division of the Moderates officially stated it is against the idea. A statement read that if the Islamic communities of Estonia have so far failed to agree on a location for a mosque the authorities should not give the go-ahead to any of them.

The party also stressed a lack of transparency in funding for the project.

The Estonian Christian People's Party issued an aggressive statement regarding the mosque on Jan. 22 and began collecting signatures against the project.

The party is not represented in the parliament, but it recently announced that it was the first anti-European Union political organization in Estonia.

Seifullen said he wishes good luck to the ECPP in their task to attract negative publicity to the mosque project.

"Practically, though, those people are conducting an interesting sociological survey that will show us how many people in Estonia consider Muslims and their religion dangerous or unnecessary," he said.

Seifullen added that actions of the ECPP are absolutely predictable.

"So far have received no threats, and everything we do accords with the law," he said.

If the ECPP manages to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the Estonian population, which seems unlikely, it would be equal to a democratic referendum. It would then, concluded Seifullen, be clear that building a mosque in Estonia is inappropriate.

A temple not a market

The official representative of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in Estonia, Imran Ahayev, who knows Guliyev personally very well, described him as a figurehead in other people's games.

"Even if Guliyev has enough funds to build the mosque, we cannot be sure the money would be clean," said Ahayev. "Besides, the local Islamic community is not centered in one particular district, and so it would be more useful to build several smaller temples in Tallinn, Narva and Viljandi, where most of the Muslims live," said Ahayev.

"I hope the problem of building a mosque in Tallinn will be solved by the cooperation between Muslims and the authorities. After all, we are talking about building a temple, not a market," said Ahayev.

According to Ahayev, building a mosque is one of the tasks of a society called ÔThe Islamic Crescent in Estonia' created last year to unite local Muslims. But the society still has no funds to fulfill that plan. At the moment, different rooms are rented to let Muslims worship in Friday prayers.

Recently the society, headed by Haron Dikayev, rented an office with a special room for worship not far from the center of Tallinn.

Ahayev said that ÔThe Islam Crescent in Estonia' unites Tartars, Chechens, Azeris, Tajiks and Kirghizes, and has been establishing contacts with businessmen from the Middle East to realize a project to build another mosque.

"We deal with people who are not rookies in the Estonian market, people who have positive reputation," said Ahayev.

He added that no talks with Guliyev are currently being held.

"Our main goal is to live in peace with other religious congregations, being the deserved carriers of Islam, and tearing any negative labels off this progressive religion," Ahayev said.

Ahayev said he thinks the Muslims of Estonia would only benefit from entering the EU, judging from European experience.