Muslims Demand a Place on the Flag

Moscow, Russia - A new dispute has erupted over demands by some Muslim groups to remove Christian signs from the Russian flag and other national emblems.

The new emblems were approved by the state Duma, the Russian parliament, five years back.

The demands follow a Muslim push for a stronger voice within Russia, including reservation of the post of vice-president for a Muslim.

The Muslim demands have been put forward by a lobby group supported by the Nizhny Novgorod Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims, the Cultural Centre of Russian Muslims and other Muslim communities in Russia.

They say that President Vladimir Putin's defence of Islam, Russia's strategic move to join the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and its technical cooperation with Iran and other Islamic countries have inspired their demands.

"The use of the national coat of arms with Christian crosses and symbols in government offices indicates the state's approval and promotion of one religion and discrimination against other religious groups," chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Asian Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov told IPS.

Ashirov believes removal of the symbols of Orthodox Christianity would make the emblems acceptable to all religious denominations. "I think the national emblem should have no religious elements at all," he said.

But such a move would only help those promoting inter-religious conflict, Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said in a statement. "Nobody would benefit from such a conflict, and least of all Muslims, who are already suffering from unfair Islamophobia."

"It would be beneficial only to those who receive money from abroad in order to sow hostility in Russia, and it would radicalise the Islamic Ummah," he said. "The calls to de-Christianise Russia, its symbols and history, its present and its future, certainly cannot but draw a negative response from Orthodox believers. This is what the organisers are probably seeking."

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia says removal of Christian symbols from the national heraldry is impossible.

"Christian symbols are to be found in national symbolism of any European country," the group spokesman Borukh Gorin told the Rossiskaya newspaper. "With all big talk about separation of religion from the state, it is clear that religion is so deeply intertwined in history, psychology, ethics and code of morals of different social systems that it is impossible to remove it completely."

Just as the use of Muslim symbols in Islamic countries does not mean a violation of the constitution, it was not scandalous to feature the Orthodox cross in Russia's national emblems, he said. "Of course, national history is first and foremost linked with the indigenous population of a given country," Gorin said.

Sergey Markov, director of the independent Political Research Institute said extremist groups are behind the demand.

"The country has been united around Russian Orthodoxy, and the constitutionally recognised emblem does not, in any way, conflict with Muslim norms and ethics," Markov told IPS. "It is a public-relations provocation by Islamic organisations and nationalist groupings whose aim is to undermine inter-religious peace in Russia."

This was not a demand by the majority of Muslims, though "they would certainly be glad to see Islamic symbols more pronounced," he added.

Alexey Arbatov from the Moscow Carnegie Centre said some organisations were using Islam to stage "a test of strength." Religion, especially in its radical form, must not be allowed to enter politics, he said.

The opposition to Christian symbols on the flag "shows clearly a religious stand that can be linked to terrorism, even though some people might say that religion and politics are two different things," Arbatov said.

"This is not only a religious attack but can also create a tense political irritation, and we must make it clear that we will not allow the French scenario (of Muslim riots) to happen in Russia," he added.