Prague, 23 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Adygea is a tiny, landlocked region that, 14 years ago, was granted the status of an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation enclosed within the Krasnodar Territory.
Muslim Adygeans, an indigenous Circassian people, account for approximately one-fourth of the republic's 446,000-strong population. Orthodox Russians represent the largest ethnic group with more than 68 percent.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as violence was spreading across the Caucasus, Adygea managed to maintain a rare record of ethno-religious harmony and political stability.
But tensions have increased recently as regional leaders have tried to counter Moscow's plans to reintegrate Adygea into the Krasnodar Territory, of which it was part until 1991.
Against this political background, religious passions have also surfaced. In July, a small group of Muslims demonstrated in the republic's capital Maykop to protest against the construction of a monument to Nicholas the Wonderworker, Russia's patron saint.
A more serious incident took place on 22 October, when armed police officers allegedly assaulted and apprehended a group of young Muslims as they were leaving Maykop's mosque.
Among those detained was Ruslan Khakirov, the mosque's imam. He told RFE/RL that masked policemen dragged them toward a minibus and drove them to the Interior Ministry's Anti-Organized Crime Department where they were further beaten and questioned.
"Most of their questions had something to do with religion. Among other things, they asked us why we were wearing beards, why we were observing Islamic norms of hygiene, etc. They thought these were overt signs of [religious extremism]," Khakirov said.
Khakirov and his five co-detainees were eventually taken to the main directorate of Adygea's Interior Ministry. He says that police forced them to sign a statement saying they had been detained for hooliganism. They spent the night handcuffed in a prison cell.
The following morning, a Maykop court refused to prosecute the detainees and ordered their immediate release.
Earlier this month on 6 November, Khakirov was again reportedly assaulted.
The imam declined to elaborate on this second incident that took place on the staircase of his apartment building. However, he told local reporters at the time he had identified his aggressor as one of the policemen who had questioned him two weeks before.
This violence would have perhaps gone unnoticed, were it not for one troubling detail: Khakirov and at least one other victim of the 22 October incident belong to the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Adygea and Krasnodar Territory.
Zaur Dzeukozhev, a legal adviser to the Circassian Congress, one of Adygea's two Circassian national movements, told our correspondent the incidents have left a profound imprint on the Muslim community, mainly because of the victims' identity.
"The fact that it was members of the Spiritual Board who were assaulted has generated an overall feeling that no one should now consider himself, or herself, immune from such incidents. That precisely Muslims known for their loyalty toward the government should be attacked like that is rather strange," Dzeukozhev said.
The prosecutor's office in Maykop has ordered an investigation into the 22 October incident and Adygea's Interior Minister Vasili Smirnov has reportedly vowed to take action against those responsible.
Among those who have demanded a probe into the attacks is Nurbi Yemizh, the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Adygea and Krasnodar Territory.
In a letter sent last month to President Khazret Sovmen, Adygea's chief mufti said the assaults had left his flock in a state of "extreme tension" and in fear of new police violence.
However, in comments made to RFE/RL this week, Yemizh denied anything extraordinary had happened:
"What incidents? Who assaulted whom? There are, in each region [of the Russian Federation], laws that say residents much carry [internal] passports and that police have the right to check the identity of every single citizen. There is nothing unusual here," Yemizh said.
Yemizh said that "people who are seeking to stir conflicts in Adygea" were responsible for exaggerating the incidents:
Regional commentators have suggested that the violence displayed by the Maykop police may be a direct consequence of last month's bloody militant raids on Nalchik, the capital of the nearby republic of Kabardino-Balkariya.
Independent reports from Nalchik suggest most of the raiders were young Muslim believers who were at odds with the official clergy and had long been suffering from police violence.
Adygea's Interior Minister Smirnov has himself suggested a possible connection between what happened in Maykop and Nalchik, saying he had put police forces on alert in the wake of the raids in Kabardino-Balkariya.
Khakirov's recollection of his night in police custody suggests that the police's motives for detaining them were connected with what happened in Nalchik.
"They [police officers] told us they were doing that because of what happened in Nalchik, although we have nothing to do with [those events]. We've never done anything against the constitution, or called for anything. They behaved with us like this just because of the way we look," Khakirov said.
In comments posted earlier this month (7 November) on Chechnya's Kavkaz-Center pro-independence website, Ruslan Achmiz, a member of Adyghe Khase, Adygea's other Circassian national movement, expressed concerns about the republic's non-Muslim population being won over by Islamophobia.
Khakirov is less alarmist. Yet, he says what happened to him and his friends may herald unpleasant developments for Adygea's future stability.
"I don't know [whether there is a specific trend here], but I know that what happened doesn't bode well for the future. It could have a very negative impact on the way people look at Islam in Adygea," Khakirov said. "These incidents have stirred our congregation and the way those police officers behaved will bring nothing good. It will bring nothing good to Muslims. Neither will it bring anything good to non-Muslims. This should have never happened in our peaceful republic."
Dzeukozhev of the Circassian Congress fears religious incidents may multiply as Adygea's future administrative status remains unclear. Especially, he says, after his organization pressed Moscow to recognize what he calls the "genocide of the Circassian people" that accompanied Russia's conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.
He believes the recent police incidents should be examined in this broader context.
"I may be wrong, of course, but I have the impression that these incidents may also be due to the fact that some people are trying to play the religion card. It looks as if these people were seeking to push the [political] debate onto the religious field," Dzeukozhev said. "This would make it easier for them to settle all these issues. Should the debate move onto a purely religious field, these forces would certainly find it much easier to settle the Circassian problem in a way that would suit them. This would allow them to tell the international community that they are engaged in a fight against 'bad' Muslims."
Adygea was always considered one of the most stable republics in the North Caucasus. But the recent police violence has triggered concerns of a possible "witch hunt" against Adygea's young Muslims, regardless of their attitude toward official Islam.