Ukrainian Muslims pray for victory, end of occupation

KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — By the time the Russians invaded, 43-year-old Mufti Said Ismahilov — one of Ukraine’s Muslim spiritual leaders — had already decided to step down from his religious duties to fight for his country.

Late last year, as warnings of an imminent attack grew louder, Ismahilov began training with a local territorial defense battalion. By then he had served as mufti for thirteen years.

Ismahilov, born and raised in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, fled Russia back in 2014 when Moscow-backed separatists took over his city. He eventually moved to a quiet suburb outside of Kyiv called Bucha – only to find himself eight years later at the heart of Moscow’s attack on Kyiv, and the scene of atrocities that shocked the world. It felt like the threat of Russian occupation would never end.

“This time I made the decision not to run, not to flee, but to fight,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in Kostiantynivka, a town near the front lines in eastern Ukraine where a struggle for dominance in the region was taking place intensifies.

Ismahilov began working as a military driver for medics evacuating the wounded from front lines or besieged cities. Ismahilov, who is tasked with driving in highly dangerous conditions but also providing emotional support to those seriously injured, sees his new job as “a continuation of my spiritual duty to God.”

“If you are not afraid and you can do this, then it is very important. The Prophet was a warrior himself,” says Ismahilov. “So I’m following his example and I’m not going to run away or hide either. I will not turn my back on others.”

Ismahilov was one of dozens of Ukrainian Muslims who gathered at the mosque in Kostiantynivka on Saturday to celebrate Eid al-Adha – a major religious holiday in Islam. The mosque is now the last remaining functioning mosque on the Ukrainian-controlled territory in Donbass. Ismahilov told the AP that there are about 30 mosques in total in the region, but most are in Russian hands.

Last week, Russia captured the city of Lysyhansk, the last major stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk. The governor of the Luhansk region said on Saturday that Russian forces are now pushing towards the border with neighboring Donetsk region.

Muslims make up almost 1 percent of the population in Ukraine, which is predominantly Orthodox Christian. There is a large Muslim population in Crimea – home to the Crimean Tatars and illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. The numbers there rise to 12%. There is also a sizeable Muslim community in eastern Ukraine, the result of waves of economic migration as the region became industrialized and many Muslims immigrated to the Donbass region to work in the mines and factories.

The 2014 conflict forced many Muslims from Crimea and Donbass to move to other parts of the country, where they joined long-established Tatar communities or established new Islamic centers alongside Turks, Arabs and Ukrainian converts.

But the invasion has again forced many to flee. The mosque in Kostiantynivka used to serve a local Muslim population of several hundred people. Only a few local residents, who had traveled west with their families, were present on Saturday. Instead, the community consisted of soldiers or medics from different units: Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian converts from Kharkiv, Kyiv and western Ukraine.

In his homily after the traditional Eid prayers, Ismahilov told the congregation that this year’s Eid had symbolic meaning in the midst of war and asked them to remember the Muslims living in occupied territories where many have lost their homes and several mosques were destroyed by shelling. Referring to a series of arrests of Crimean Tatars after the annexation in 2014, Ismahilov said Muslims in occupied territories did not feel safe.

“The fear is great. … The war is going on and we have no idea what is happening in the occupied territories and what the situation of the Muslims is in there,” he said.

Ismahilov told the AP he views Russian Muslims invading Ukraine, including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s notorious Chechen battalions, as “criminals.”

“They commit sins and … they came without justification as murderers and occupiers to a territory that is home to Ukrainians and Ukrainian Muslims. Allah did not give them this right,” says Ismahilov. “They will answer to God for all of this.”

Olha Bashei, 45, a lawyer-turned-paramedic from Kyiv who converted to Islam in 2015, says Russia is trying to “wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth.” Bashei started working as a front-line paramedic in Donbass in 2014. She regards this war as her “jihad,” a term used to denote holy war or personal struggle in Islam.

“This war is my war and I defend my jihad because I have nephews, I have a mother and I defend my home. I don’t want my nephews to ever see what I unfortunately saw in this war,” she said.

“Islam even helps me, because in Islam, in prayer you kind of distract yourself from the war because you are reading the prayer and you have a connection to the Almighty. For me, Islam is a force that also supports me in war.”

When the soldiers were preparing the usual sacrificial sheep for the Eid festival, a residential area several kilometers away in Kostiantynivka was heavily shelled. The incoming artillery shook the ground. Some soldiers ran to the mosque bunker. Others shrugged and continued drinking their tea and eating dates. The shelling started multiple fires, injured several residents and burned roofs to ashes.

Ismahilov said they would pray for victory and liberation of the occupied territories.

“We pray that our Muslim compatriots are safe, that our families are reunited, that the Muslims killed go to heaven and that all Muslim soldiers defending their country are accepted by Allah as shahids (martyrs).” Ukrainian Muslims pray for victory, end of occupation

Dustin Huang

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