MOSCOW // Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday opened one of Europe’s biggest mosques in Moscow, warning against the lure of extremists as the government frets over its citizens fighting for ISIL.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas were the guests of honour at the unveiling of the 20,000-square metre mosque in the Russian capital.
“This mosque will become an extremely important spiritual centre for Muslims in Moscow and the whole Russia,” Mr Putin said in a televised speech.
“It will be a source for education, spreading humanist ideas and the true values of Islam.”
The turquoise-domed mosque can host over 10,000 worshippers and is one of the largest in the country that will help to serve Russia’s estimated 20 million Muslims.
The US$170 million (Dh624m) project, which took a decade to complete, caused controversy over the destruction of an earlier mosque that stood on the same site.
Moscow – which has battled an Islamic insurgency in its volatile southern Caucasus region – is worried about the pull of extremist groups, especially ISIL extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev last week estimated that some 1,800 Russian citizens are fighting for the radical group.
Mr Putin in his speech lashed out at extremist groups for their “attempts to cynically exploit religious feeling for political ends”.
“We see what is happening in the Middle East where terrorists from the so-called ISIL group are compromising a great world religion, compromising Islam, in order to sow hate,” he said.
The Russian president was set to meet Mr Erdogan for talks that were expected to focus on the Syrian conflict, amid rising concerns in the West about a buildup of Russian forces in the war-torn country.
The United States says Moscow has recently sent troops, tanks and fighter jets to Syria, sparking fears that Russia could be looking to join the fight alongside its ally president Bashar Al Assad.
Turkey and Russia stand on opposing sides over the crisis in Syria, with Ankara fiercely backing the rebels trying to oust Mr Al Assad.
Turkey is currently waging what Ankara describes as a two-pronged “war on terror” against both ISIL and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), although so far air strikes have overwhelmingly focused on bases of the Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.
Moscow has been on a diplomatic push to try to get western and regional powers involved in a coalition against ISIL to join forces with Mr Al Assad.
* Agence France-Presse