Tidings and Tension
Students encounter clash of perspectives

Saturday was a triple-header for monotheistic believers. The day included a walking trip to a synagogue, mosque and Russian Orthodox church.

The visits had their spiritual side, but politics was never too far beneath the surface. Russian President Vladimir Putin�s name was invoked at the synagogue, and Osama bin Laden�s name came up at the mosque.

We enjoyed a late-morning start, but there were some early risers among us. Matt Volz woke up at 6:30 a.m. to see Red Square and the Kremlin in the early-morning light joined later by Noah Haglund and Darren Foster. Manya Brachear and Professor Ari Goldman went to the synagogue an hour earlier than the rest of us.

Around 11:15 a.m. the class arrived at the Marina Roscha Synagogue to attend the last hour of Sabbath prayers. As is traditional in an Orthodox synagogue, the men were seated separately from the women, who observed from a gallery overlooking the main hall.

When the Torah was lifted, a few of the women reached out their hands to embrace it from above. Below, the men touched the Torah with the fringes of a prayer shawl, which they then kissed as a sign of reverence.

People followed the prayers at their own pace, as young boys — not yet bar mitzvahed — playfully ran through the aisles.

Manya, named after her Russian great-grandmother, found her babushka counterpart, Manya, in the row of mostly senior gallery ladies.

After the service, we were generously invited for a light lunch, joined by two Lubavitch rabbis, Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, and Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities.

As Berkowitz gave blessings over a feast "fit for a king," he symbolically overfilled a glass of wine to represent the spilling over of charity to others.

"A toast to religious freedom in post-communism Russia," he said. With each of the three courses, some of us regretted having stuffed ourselves at the hotel's buffet breakfast.

The security at the synagogue's door has been stepped up since Sept. 11. The synagogue has been victimized by acts of arson, bombing and anti-Semitic graffiti as recent as three years ago. But the rabbis said that Russia has since become a safer place for its three to six million Jews. "It's out of style to be anti-Semitic," said Lazar.

Emphasizing the theme of a unified Russian Jewish community — encompassing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, but controlled by the Orthodox — Lazar and Berkowitz both spoke of the community's miraculous progress. Most Russian Jews have little or no knowledge of Jewish practices, but, despite 70 years of Communism, a surprising number have shown an interest in Jewish tradition, the rabbis said.

"What I feel is so special about Russian Jews is that they are much more sincere than their Western brothers," said Lazar, who went out of his way to tell us that he frequently meets with Putin.

Government support for Jews in Russia has steadily developed during the last decade, Lazar said. Now, with post-communist Russia's religious revival, he worries that too much "misinformation" is coming into the country, imported by missionaries such as Jews for Jesus, who he believes misrepresent their faith.

"You can't expect Russia to be as open to information as America. People will get lost," he said, echoing recent statements by Putin.

The different groups within the American Jewish community are also a problem, added Lazar. "We don't need all that division — here everything is peaceful until sometimes the West imports the divisiveness." He declined to give these movements any credibility even though they comprise a majority of American Jewry.

After lunch, we toured the seven-floor synagogue. In addition to being a place of worship, it is an extensive community center that includes a gym, multimedia library and room for such games as "Who wants to be a Jewish millionaire?" An estimated 1,500 people come through the center each day, Berkowitz said.

The rabbis were eager to showcase the facility, but we were on a tight schedule. Our guide, Andrei Zolotov, a religion reporter for The Moscow Times, rushed us along to the bright turquoise Cathedral Mosque, seat of Ravil Gainutdin, sheik of European Russia. It is also the headquarters of the Religious Board for Muslims of European Russia.

The mosque is one of only six in Moscow, where one million Muslims live. The uniqueness of the Cathedral Mosque is that, unlike most places of worship during communism, it has never been shut down since its foundation in 1904.

The visit became unexpectedly tense and emotional as we met with an aide to the sheik, Dr. Farid Asadullin. His speech, translated by Andrei, was diplomatic, but his answers to our questions shocked us all.

The events of Sept. 11 followed our group from New York to the cramped hall where sheik Asadullin defended Islam. Yet, he insensitively argued the need for evidence of bin Laden's guilt and asserted that the Pentagon crash "may have been staged."

The difficult conversation began when Brian McGuire asked Asadullin what he meant when he said that Muslims must be "enlightened," considering the Sept. 11 hijackers had thought they were enlightened. A lot of things about 9/11 are not thoroughly understood, Asadullin responded defensively. He condemned the U.S. campaign to wipe out bin Laden at any cost. Instead he called for bin Laden's arrest and extradition to an international court of law.

"Even if he is guilty, the civilized world has a civilized way of dealing with that," the sheik added.

The atmosphere of the room grew uneasy. When Asadullin said the Sept. 11 assault on the Pentagon could have been staged, several students wanted to know his sources. He referred vaguely to media, explaining that there was no footage of the plane crash.

"I tried to approach this issue objectively," he said. "But so far, Americans themselves don't have evidence. There is a very clear trend that is visible here, to make a connection between bin Laden and Islam."

Professor Goldman spoke up against Asadullin's lack of compassion and understanding. He explained to him that, coming from New York, we were emotionally affected after having seen 3,000 people so close to home killed in a matter of seconds. Goldman also questioned Asadullin's logic. "Why are you linking bin Laden with Islam when Americans aren't doing that?" he asked.

The speech was too much for Nicole Neroulias who burst into tears. Asadullin seemed unaware of the gravity of his words. He expressed his condolences for the tragedy, and clarified that he is opposed to "the global problem of prejudice against Islam." But the damage had been done. "I was really quite surprised by what he said," remarked Andrei, who has interviewed Asadullin in the past. "If he's saying these things — and he's an official — that means that the real attitude of a Muslim in Russia can be three times as strong."

Students felt uncomfortable. When we entered the praying area of the mosque afterward, Ailis Brown said that, instead of a welcoming environment, she sensed animosity. What was meant to be a visit of religious education and acceptance had become a divisive exchange that left everyone unsettled.

The sweet incense at evening vespers of the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church could only mildly clear the air. "How are we supposed to deal with a speaker like that?" asked Anusha Shrivastava in a class discussion later that evening.

To answer Anusha's question, Goldman asked the group to consider another: "Are we pilgrims, tourists or journalists?"

Click here to read a Muslim's reaction to the sheikh�s remarks.

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Moscow's Cathedral Mosque grows in shadow Saturday just before asr — the afternoon prayer.