KAZAN, Russia -- As imam of the Mirgaziyan mosque in Kazan, capital of Russia’s majority-Muslim republic of Tatarstan, Abdurrauf Zabirov says his sermons have helped parishioners develop “immunity to radical sectarian propaganda of all types.”
Since assuming the role two years ago, he has posted regular video addresses to the faithful on the mosque’s YouTube channel, maintaining a dialogue with Russia’s wider community of Muslims and actively discussing the tenets of Islam.
But last month, two days after the end of Ramadan, Zabirov received a phone call that made him fear his outreach is under threat. On the other end, he said, was a representative of state-owned regional telecommunications giant Tattelecom, who told him technical engineers would soon arrive and install three cameras in the mosque to surveil its congregation.
Since the theft of an alms box in 2016, Mirgaziyan has operated its own cameras – eight of them -- and many other mosques in Kazan have done the same. Zabirov told the company representative that he didn't need any more.
“He told me: ‘These are FSB cameras,” Zabirov recalled the man saying, citing Russia’s powerful Federal Security Service. “I replied, ‘Listen, I don’t take orders from your FSB.’”
Whether he knew it or not, Zabirov was not the only imam receiving calls from Tattelecom. On May 21, the company sent a letter to mufti Kamil Samigullin, the religious leader of Tatarstan’s Muslims, requesting access to all of the mosques in Kazan in preparation for the launch of a surveillance system under orders from the republic’s Ministry of Digital Development and Communications.
Samigullin should “provide contact details for representatives from every mosque in the quickest possible time,” read the letter, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL and which bore the signature of Airat Nurutdinov, a former high-ranking official in Tatarstan’s government who became the director of Tattelecom in early May.
RFE/RL was unable to confirm FSB involvement in the surveillance campaign, or to determine how many mosques have been contacted or how many cameras installed. But the reports come at a time when members of Russia’s Muslim community fear they are being singled out for scrutiny amid a broader crackdown on some religious groups.
An Intimate Question
By various estimates, Muslims make up some 10 to 14 percent of Russia’s population. Islam is enshrined in a 1997 law as one Russia’s four “traditional” religions, along with Buddhism, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity. But the legislation suggests that the latter has a special status of its own, and President Vladimir Putin’s close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church – resurgent since the Soviet collapse of 1991 -- has deepened concerns of discrimination against members of other faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics.
Tatarstan has long been upheld by many in Russia as an example of the relatively peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Orthodox Christians. But the Islamist insurgency that followed two separatist wars in Chechnya, a region far from Tatarstan in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, has fueled religious tension and bias against Russia’s Muslims, according to rights activists. And the decision by some Russian Muslims to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside the extremist group Islamic State (IS) has led to a clampdown by law enforcement and claims of discrimination against the religious community as a whole.
The flow of Russian fighters to the Middle East has largely abated with IS in retreat, but some tensions in Russia continue. In April, reports emerged that Tatarstan’s Interior Ministry was contacting directors of schools across Kazan with demands that they provide lists of children from families that practice Islam and wear the hijab, the latest in a series of disputes over use of the Islamic head covering in Russia.
Students should be questioned by school psychologists "for the purpose of ascertaining which current of Islam they adhere to" and determining when exactly their families embraced strict Islamic beliefs, read a copy of the letter, posted online by Ruslan Nagiyev, a Tatar lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in various cases relating to the rights of Muslims in Russia.
The ministry announced an investigation into the claims and said the letters had been the initiative of an individual employee.
In May, clashes erupted in a Kazan suburb over plans to build a mosque, with members of the Muslim community arguing with non-Muslim local residents who said they feared the area would be overwhelmed with cars and noise during services. A similar standoff broke out the previous year, amid a push by local Muslim leaders to expand the number of mosques in Tatarstan’s capital.
According to Nagiyev, religious tensions in Tatarstan have cooled since what he said was the peak of a campaign by Moscow to rein in Islamic radicalism and prevent extremist Russian Muslims from joining IS or other militant groups abroad. He said that cameras are widely used in the 1,500 mosques estimated to operate across Tatarstan, but that they are monitored internally. The planned installation of cameras that imams allege will transmit video directly to Russia’s security services raises the stakes considerably.
“This involves the private sphere,” Nagiyev told RFE/RL by telephone. “Some people don’t want officials to know they’re visiting a church. It’s a very intimate question.”
Nagiyev suspects that the initiative is aimed at lightening the workload for law enforcement organs already under pressure to file reports on the presence of radical elements in the Muslim community. Instead of relying on undercover visits, he asserted, they will monitor houses of prayer remotely.
“I think law enforcement is making the job easier for themselves,” he said. “It’s no secret they visit mosques to listen and observe. Now they’ll do it with the help of cameras -- they’ll see and hear what happens in the mosque.”
On July 12, a reporter from RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service visited Mirgaziyan to speak with parishioners about authorities’ plans to install cameras in the mosque.
“Our parishioners do not want surveillance cameras," Ilshat Galimov, a member of the congregation, told him. “We have women here, and children. For [the authorities] to see them, from the front, from the rear, it's not pretty to snoop while a person bows to the Almighty.”
“Maybe it’s customary in their line of work to lie in Courchevel with your paws up, soaking in the sun and checking who’s entering the Mirgaziyan mosque,” said Rauf Ibragimov, a prominent member of the Muslim community who founded the mosque several years ago. “But this is our society. We are citizens of Russia. And you must trust your citizens."
'Round-The-Clock Direct Surveillance'
In response to a request for comment from RFE/RL, a representative of Tattelecom said the installation of surveillance cameras in the mosques of Kazan is done in the interests of parishioners as part of a new project to improve security on the grounds of religious institutions. It is backed by the Muslim Spiritual Board of Tatarstan, which provided a contact list of imams in the city, the company said.
The Muslim Spiritual Board confirmed its cooperation in comments to RFE/RL.
Tattelecom did not clarify how such cameras will differ from those already installed in the city’s mosques, or whether they will share data with the FSB or other law enforcement bodies. Nor did it specify whether such cameras will be installed in houses of worship of other confessions, including Russian Orthodoxy – the second-largest faith in Tatarstan and the predominant religion in Russia as a whole.
For its part, the republic’s Ministry of Digital Development and Communications, which was cited in Tattelecom’s letter, said it had no clue about the planned surveillance.
“We’ve signed no official contract related to any cameras in any mosques,” ministry spokeswoman Anna Yakovleva told RFE/RL. “We’re unaware of the situation in question.”
The FSB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, an online petition has been launched against the surveillance plans, citing “illegal meddling by law enforcement organs in the activities of religious organizations and the private lives of Muslims.”
But Zabirov and some other imams plan to go further. On June 30, in his latest video address on the YouTube channel he runs for congregants, he railed against plans to install cameras at Mirgaziyan and vowed he will not give in to pressure.
“What is this, round-the-clock direct surveillance of those who enter the house of God?” he said. "How should we perceive that?"
He went on to compare the initiative with the Chinese surveillance of Uyghur Muslims.
Nagiyev, the lawyer, is now assisting Zabirov and other imams in Kazan who wish to appeal against Tattelecom’s surveillance efforts at mosques. Early in July, he wrote to the prosecutor’s office requesting a legal justification for the initiative, but said he is still waiting for a reply.
The campaign to challenge the initiative in courts is backed by many of Zabirov’s parishioners.
“When they learn that they're being recorded, people will simply stop going to the mosque," Farit Zakiev, the chairman of the All-Tatar Public Center, a Muslim rights group, told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. “Those who don't want to install [cameras] have a right to appeal to the Constitutional Court. And I think they will win."