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Russia: Muslims Upset By State Symbols

(official site) A top Muslim cleric has reiterated calls on the Russian government to remove what he says are Orthodox symbols from the national coat of arms. Nafigulla Ashirov, the chief mufti of the Asian part of Russia, says its religious undertones violate the principle of secularity. But Muslim leaders say the issue merely raises broader concerns about what they denounce as the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in state affairs.

Moscow, 7 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The debate surrounding the coat of arms first emerged in the predominantly Muslim republic of Tatarstan, when a group of Muslims complained about having to carry passports emblazoned with Christian symbols.

The current coat of arms, which was adopted in November 1993, represents a double-headed eagle with three cross-tipped crowns. A shield on its breast features a horseman slaying a dragon, a figure many identify as St. George.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Ashirov said growing numbers of Muslims in Russia are insulted by the religion-tainted emblem. According to Muslim leaders, Russia is home to 20 million Muslims.

Ashirov went on to tell RFE/RL that the coat of arms is only one example of a wider tendency to introduce Russian Orthodox symbols and practices into institutions that are, by law, secular.

"There are other issues besides the coat of arms: 20-meter crosses are being installed everywhere, submarines are being blessed," Ashirov said. "This happens very often now, they've started sending icons into space. In my opinion, this is already irritating the public."

As far as the coat of arms goes, authorities deny any wrongdoing.

Georgii Vilinbakhov, the head of the State Heraldry Office, said the official description of the emblem does not identify the horseman as St. George. Were the rider a saint, Vilinbakhov further argued, he would have a halo around his head.

As for the crosses, Vilinbakhov said that such square crosses used on flags and medals around the world and do not have a particular religious connotation.

Lev Ponomarev, the executive director of the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights, does not share this view. Like many human-rights campaigners, he backs Ashirov's call for secular state symbols.

"I think this is a reasonable proposal," Ponomarev said. "The Movement For Human Rights, together with many other rights campaigners, has long called for the protection of the secular character of our government. We have spoken against the text of the [national] anthem -- which now includes [the word] 'God' -- and we think that there is a reasonable ground for this declaration. It is rather natural that this has emerged as the Orthodox movement is radicalizing in Russia."

Despite their consistent requests that state symbols be reviewed, Muslim leaders say they are simply trying to draw attention to what they describe as a countrywide campaign against Muslims.

"Today Muslims feel just they way they did in the colonial, Tsarist empire -- second-class people who are arrested on the street on the basis of their ethnic characteristics, who are accused of crimes they haven't committed," said Geidar Dzhemal, president of the Islamic Committee of Russia. "Today, hundreds of young men are being tortured in police detention centers, they are told they are Wahabbis or terrorists. Of course, these issues are a lot more important than the coat of arms -- but you've got to start with the small things."

The Beslan hostage tragedy that took place last year in Russia's southern republic of North Ossetia triggered off a wave of trials against Muslims accused of links with the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia considers terrorist organization.

Human-rights groups have accused the authorities of fabricating cases and say ordinary Muslims are suffering violent and humiliating treatment at the hands of law-enforcement agencies.