Russia's first Muslim clinic opens in Moscow

Moscow, Russia - With Koranic scriptures adorning its walls, Russia's first Muslim clinic opened in Moscow this week, hailed by religious leaders as a sign of greater respect for Islam.

After cutting the red ribbon at the entrance of the gleaming modern facility in Moscow's industrial southeast, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin described the opening of the Muslim clinic as a "historic event".

"The international community can now see that in multinational and multi-faith Russia every citizen has the right to health services," Gainutdin said at an official ceremony on Thursday.

Run by some 50 doctors and nurses, the Muslim clinic occupies one floor of the Price Quality (Tsena Kachetsvo) private health care centre in southeast Moscow and offers a prayer hall, an ablution room and snack bar of halal foods.

Dressed in white headscarves and loose-fitting tunics and trousers, nurses and female doctors carry out examinations of women in the presence of husbands or other women. Men are treated by male staff in a separate section.

"What's important here is the atmosphere," said Syrian doctor Kadir Makhmud. "As you can see the women dress modestly, there is a place to pray, this is all important for Muslims."

"I would say that this was very much needed for the Muslim community," said Makhmud, who has worked in several foreign-run clinics in Moscow since he moved to Russia from Syria two years ago.

While it seeks to cater to Moscow's million-plus Muslims, the clinic more specifically targets the diplomatic community from the Middle East and Gulf countries who have been returning home for medical care.

At the opening ceremony, the grand mufti encouraged diplomats to "send their wives" to the clinic and underscored that it was open to all faiths.

Medical visits cost on average 800 rubles (33 dollars, 22 euros) each, within affordable reach of the average Muscovite.

The clinic was opened with support from Moscow authorities and the Russian health ministry, underscoring the government's efforts to reach out to its Muslim community after years of tumultuous ties.

President Vladimir Putin last month met with Muslim leaders and said that "Muslims today play a positive role in Russia" before urging them to vote in parliamentary elections earlier this month.

The new tone is seen as an attempt to move beyond the anti-Muslim sentiment generated by the war in Chechnya and upheaval in other Muslim-dominated republics that Putin has blamed on Islamic radicals.

Viktor Kisin, head of the Price Quality chain of clinics, said there were plans to open Muslim facilities elsewhere in Russia, possibly in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, and Kazan in Tatarstan.

Arslan Sadriyev, a member of the Mufti Council, said hospitals and clinics in predominantly Muslim-populated republics in the Caucasus and southern Russia offered no special services for practising Muslims.

"Nowhere but here will women get treatment from women and men from men," said Sadriyev.

"We hope that the government will see this clinic as a successful experience and use it as an example," he said.

Russia is home to some 20 million Muslims, many of whom are non-practising, but the country has witnessed a strong revival of Islam since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.