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Renouncing Anti-israel Remarks, Russian Muslims Reach out to Jews

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Russia’s chief rabbi and the chairman of the country’s main Islamic council are patching up a relationship severed two weeks ago after an Islamic community leader called Zionism a cancer and Israel a fascist state.

Ravil Gaynutdin, the chairman of Russia’s Council of Muftis, reached out to Rabbi Berel Lazar during Purim celebrations and asked for a meeting as the Russian media began to report that Lazar’s Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities was cutting ties with the council.

In a joint statement released on the council’s Web site, the two leaders said they were “ready to continue maintaining a respectful and trusting relationship.”

The statement made no mention of Nafigullah Ashirov, a co-chairman of the Islamic council, whose comments this month drove a wedge between the two groups.

“Zionism is a cancerous tumor because Zionism is fascism,” Ashirov, the council’s director of spiritual administration in the Asian part of Russia, said at a March 4 news conference when asked how he felt about Israel.

After Ashirov made similar comments at a rally last year, Jewish leaders decried the remarks and called on the Council of Muftis to repudiate them. The council responded swiftly, saying Ashirov’s beliefs did not represent its view.

This time, however, the council remained silent after the comments were widely reported and the Jewish federation again asked the council to denounce the statements.

“We took this silence as a sign of agreement with Ashirov’s opinion,” the federation’s spokesman, Boruch Gorin, told JTA.

Both Lazar and Gaynutdin are members of Russia’s Public Chamber, a consulting body to the Russian Legislature comprised of prominent figures in Russian society. The federation and council participate in the Russian government’s interreligious councils and engage in interfaith dialogues.

On March 20, the federation announced that it would not participate with the Council of Muftis in these forums. The same day, Gaynutdin reached out to Lazar for the meeting, which Lazar scheduled for March 27, Gorin said.

But the conflict continued to simmer, attracting the attention of the Russian media, government and religious groups.

It was the first such split between two groups from different religions in Russia’s post-Soviet history, Gorin said.

Alexander Ignatenko, a member of the Public Chamber and the president of the Institute of Religion and Politics, said Nashirov’s words were part of an attempt to radicalize Russia’s Islamic population.

“With all his comments, Ashirov was not expressing the opinion of Russian Muslims but rather broadcasting over Russian media slogans and statements that were formed outside Russia,” Ignatenko told the Russian-language Jewish News Agency.

Most of Russia’s Muslims are more liberal and less susceptible to anti-Western or anti-Israeli rhetoric than those in the Arab world, Gorin said, adding that Ashirov may well represent the minority as “the loud-mouth voice of the Arabic community of Russia.”

Evgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow and a vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said Ashirov embodied the worst aspects of a creeping influence from more strident anti-Zionist regimes in Iran, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

The disparity in ideology between Russian Islamic leaders and their counterparts abroad presents a problem.

“The major danger is the civil war inside the Muslim community,” Satanovsky said.

The Council of Muftis reacted with surprise to the intensity of the furor surrounding the federation’s announcement that it was suspending ties with the council.

In a statement on its Web site about the “alleged controversy” in the Russian mass media, the council said it had never received an official request from the federation to denounce Ashirov’s statements.

“The situation has all been played out for the sake of the press,” the statement said.

Gorin said the council promised the federation “that in the very near future they would find how to stop provocative announcements from getting out.”

Leading up to the Muslim-Jewish meeting, other Islamic umbrella organizations rushed to condemn Ashirov’s statements.

Rastam Valeyev, an envoy for the Russian Central Muslim Spiritual Administration, told the Interfax news service that Ashirov’s comments had “endangered interreligious peace in the country.”

One day after the split, the Public Chamber’s committee on religion adopted a statement calling on both sides to re-engage in dialogue.

Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations, took a measured approach to Ashirov’s remarks.

“Before deciding to freeze the relations, meetings should be held to discuss the disputable aspects,” Kogan said.

With the apparent denouement of the conflict last week, several leaders in the Jewish community said the events signaled a change in tone among their organizations in Russia as they defend against anti-Semitism and attacks on Israel.

Alexander Axelrod, the Anti-Defamation League’s representative in Moscow, said before last week’s reconciliation that no matter what steps are taken, an emboldened Jewish stance has been aired over the past two weeks.

Satanovsky of the Russian Jewish Congress noted that Russian Jews today are free to speak out against anti-Semitic or anti-Israel rhetoric without fear.

“In the year 2008, the Jewish community is strong enough, independent enough and I think have all the possibilities to tell these guys what we really think about them,” he said.

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