For Muslims in Ukraine, war revives questions of faith and belonging

LVIV, Ukraine — The Quran on Murad Suleimanov’s desk has become a crisis management manual as he figures out how to serve the hundreds of terrified, displaced people who stream through the doors of the mosque he leads in western Ukraine.

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When his heart grows heavy over Russia’s war, Suleimanov reads about lopsided battles in Islamic history. When he checks on a Muslim elder whose house was destroyed by shelling, he recites verses about faith in hard times. And when the imam sees pro-Russian Muslim militias 
participating in brutalities, he turns to passages about the sanctity of life and thinks there must be “some other kind of Muslim, with some other Quran” to justify such acts.

For Suleimanov and others in Ukraine’s tiny Muslim population, there’s no question that they should share in the country’s protection. Muslims here are fighting on the front lines and providing humanitarian relief, viewing their wartime efforts as both a religious duty and an assertion of Ukrainian identity in a nation that hasn’t always welcomed them.

“Yes, we’re the minority here, but we’re a part of this country,” Suleimanov, 31, said one recent evening. “We must do something.”

At his headquarters, the Islamic Cultural Center of Lviv, a display case exhibits faded old Qurans carried by Crimean Tatars, Muslims who were forcibly deported in 1944 during a Soviet ethnic cleansing campaign. Displayed in another case are chunks of shrapnel and spent ordnance from Russian attacks in recent weeks that leveled Muslim-owned homes in the suburbs of Kyiv, the capital.

Shells and parts of weapons that one of the men from the Islamic Cultural Center of Lviv community found recently in his garden near Kyiv are displayed at the center. (Kasia Strek for The Washington Post)
These mementos, collected nearly 80 years apart, represent chapters in the long story of Muslim suffering at the hands of rulers in Moscow. Islam has deep and tangled roots in the region; six of the former Soviet Union’s 15 republics were majority-Muslim.

Today, the 20 million Muslims living in Russia face worsening repression, including torture and arbitrary detention, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.


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