A Russian woman passes near the site of an animal sacrifice in Tver on November 16.
On November 16, millions of Muslims all over Russia celebrated the religious holiday of Qurban Bayram (the Turkik name of Eid al-Adha), which closes with the ritual sacrifice of a sheep. The killings, sometimes carried out in public spaces, shock and anger some non-Muslim Russians.
The practice raises no alarm in traditionally Muslim parts of Russia, such as North Caucasus, Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, which have a large Turkik population. But in predominantly Orthodox Christian Russian cities like Moscow or Saint Petersburg, which have experienced an influx of Muslim migrants in recent years, citizens are shocked by the sight of sheep’s throats being slit in the middle of the street.
One incident last year, in which a sheep was sacrificed in the sand-pit of a Moscow playground, sparked particular outrage. Since then, Muslim clergy have exhorted their followers to carry out the rite in private and keep a low profile during the holiday. This year, no such incident was reported in Moscow. However, authorities registered complaints of sheep corpses being dragged through residential neighborhoods, tied up near bus-stops or killed inside minivans parked in the vicinity of Moscow mosques.
In smaller cities, the situation is even tenser. In Tver, Mulsims made their sacrifices right in front of a Catholic Church not far from the city’s mosque. In Vladivostok, the killings took place near a kindergarten school. The sheer size of crowds gathering in and around mosques to pray has posed another type of problem. In Moscow, there were reports of women being unable to reach their homes or offices because the throngs of praying Muslim men near the central Mosque refused to let women pass near them.
The cooler heads in both communities are trying to find solutions that could accommodate everyone’s needs. Some non-Muslim leaders have proposed building more mosques with closed courts, to reduce the size of the crowds that form around the few existing ones, and keep the sacrifices out of public sight. Some Muslim Russians have suggested that the sacrifices take place outside city walls, in spaces set up especially to that effect. But these voices of reason are drowned out by the bitter quarrel between some Russians and Muslims extremists on internet forums, where right-wing nationalists are calling to “clean our cities of Muslim scum”, and Muslim extremists answer with threats of “cutting the throats of infidel bastards instead of sheep”.
Sheep sacrifice in Moscow. Video posted on YouTube by Papik007.
Animal sacrifices in Moscow during this year's Qurban Bayram holiday
“Although I’m a Muslim, I oppose the sacrifices altogether”
Azamat, 45, was born in North Caucusus but has lived near Moscow for 20 years. He works as a businessman.
Although I'm a Muslim, I don’t zealously follow all traditions. I don’t approve of the practice of killing animals for a religious rite, and I oppose the sacrifices altogether, be it in a crowded square or a private space. Wherever it’s happening, it’s just wrong. This ritual belongs to the past. We're living in XXI century and you can be a religious person without sacrificing living beings.”
“A big problem is the unequal status of Muslim holidays in different Russian regions”
Konstantin, 23, is a historian living in Saint Petersburg. Because this issue has draw violent criticism of Muslims in his city, he prefers to speak anonymously.
For me, just as for any Muslim, the Feast of Sacrifice has a huge importance. It symbolises the Mercy and Grace of Allah toward man. History tells us that God replaced Ibrahim's (Abraham's) sacrifice of his son with a sacrifice of a lamb. And our Faith (Iman) is the best sacrifice for our God.
This year, like the one before, I wasn’t able to sacrifice a lamb myself. In the city where I live, Saint Petersburg, the sacrifices took place at the city’s outer limits or in neighbouring regions. This makes it difficult for Muslims in the city to find time to perform the rite, especially because Qurban Bayram is not a public holiday in our region. For most of Saint-Petersburg’s Muslims, the holiday was limited to going to the Mosque after work. But because of the catastrophic deficit of mosques, we crowded in the streets around them during prayer time, in freezing cold winds. There are only two mosques in Saint Petersburg, and four in Moscow, whereas both cities count hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
One big problem is the unequal status of Muslim holidays in different Russian regions. In some, Mulim holidays are also public holidays. In others, including the ones with a substantial Muslim population, they are regular working days. In Saint Petersburg, there are twice as many Muslims as in the Caucasian region of Ingushetia. Yet they have Qurban Bayram off and we don’t. The resulting situations (overcrowded streets around Mosques, sacrifices in inadequate places), make life difficult for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
This is a political issue that will need to be solved at some point, because the number of Muslims in traditionally Orthodox cities is growing every year. Today Islam is an indispensable part of Russian history and Russian culture, without Islam you can't understand Russia's past. If people don’t understand that, and constructive dialogue between faiths doesn’t exist, this will pose problem for the future. Russian society is already divided across property, class and ethnic lines. It will be too much if we're divided across religious lines as well.”