ISLAM and MUSLIMS IN LATVIA

      

General Information

National name: Latvijas Republika

Land area: 24,903 sq mi (64,500 sq km); total area: 24,938 sq mi (64,589 sq km)

Population (2008 est.): 2,245,423

Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Riga, 867,700 (metro. area), 706,200 (city proper)

Other large cities: Daugavpils, 111,700; Liepaja, 82,300

Monetary unit: Lats

Languages: Latvian 58% (official), Russian 38%, Lithuanian, other (2000)

Ethnicity/race: Latvian 57.7%, Russian 29.6%, Belorussian 4.1%, Ukrainian 2.7%, Polish 2.5%, Lithuanian 1.4%, other 2% (2002)

Religions: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox

National Holiday: Independence Day, November 18

Literacy: 100% (2003 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2007 est.): $39.7 billion; per capita $17,400. Real growth rate: 10.2%. Inflation: 10.1%.

Latvia borders Estonia on the north, Lithuania in the south, the Baltic Sea with the Gulf of Riga in the west, Russia in the east, and Belarus in the southeast. Latvia is largely a fertile lowland with numerous lakes and hills to the east.

Baltic tribes people settled along the Baltic Sea and, lacking a centralized government, fell prey to more powerful peoples. In the 13th century they were overcome by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a German order of knights whose mission was to conquer and Christianize the Baltic region. The land became part of the state of Livonia until 1561. Germans composed the ruling class of Livonia and Baltic tribes made up the peasantry. German was the official language of the region.

Poland conquered the territory in 1562 and occupied it until Sweden took over the land in 1629, ruling until 1721. Then the land passed to Russia. From 1721 until 1918, the Latvians remained Russian subjects, although they preserved their language, customs, and folklore.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 gave them their opportunity for freedom, and the Latvian republic was proclaimed on Nov. 18, 1918. The republic lasted little more than 20 years. Plagued by political instability, Latvia essentially became a dictatorship under President Karlis Ulmanis. It was occupied by Russian troops in 1939 and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. German armies occupied the nation from 1941 to 1944. Of the 70,000 Jews living in Latvia during World War II, 95% were massacred. In 1944, Russia again took control of Latvia.

Latvia was one of the most economically well-off and industrialized parts of the Soviet Union. When a coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev failed in 1991, the Baltic nations saw an opportunity to free themselves from Soviet domination and, following the actions of Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia declared its independence on Aug. 21, 1991. European and most other nations quickly recognized their independence, and on Sept. 2, 1991, President Bush announced full diplomatic recognition for Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. The Soviet Union recognized Latvia's independence on Sept. 6, and UN membership followed on Sept. 17, 1991.

Islamic History and Muslims

The presence of Muslims in Latvia was first recorded in the early 1800s. The Muslims had mainly Tatar and Turkic backgrounds, and most had been brought to Latvia against their will. These included Turkish prisoners of war from the Crimean War and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. After the Russo-Turkish War almost one hundred Turkish prisoners were brought to the town of Cēsis, where nearly 30 perished owing to harsh conditions of weather, under no suitable location for warmth and no protection for cold.

In 1902, a Muslim congregation was officially established and recognized by the government. The community elected Ibrahim Davidof as its leader and a prayer hall was inaugurated. The majority of Muslims residing in Latvia in the early part of the twentieth century were conscripted in the Russian army. After release from service, most would leave for Moscow. Many Muslims residing in Latvia on permanent basis were ordered to be arrested by Czarist Russia during World War I. The Czarist regime cited security reasons, claiming they were of Turkish origin and could pose a security threat as Ottoman Turkey was fighting Russia in the war. Most were taken to Moscow.

During the creation of the Soviet Union and amid civil war, many refugees entered Latvia, including Muslims of various ethnicities. They were however known to Latvians as Turks. In 1928, Husnetdinov, a Turkic priest, was elected leader of Riga Muslim community. He held that post until 1940. During the Soviet rule, all religious activities were curbed and Muslims as well as Christians suffered discrimination.

Latvia's Muslim community reaches out

By Elena Banks

The Baltic Times, RIGA, Latvia - One fifth of the world's population is Muslim. Islam is the fastest growing and perhaps most misunderstood religion in the world. But while Islam has never before enjoyed such popularity, neither has it been more controversial. Estimates as to how many Muslims there are in Latvia range from 500 to 10,000, but it would seem that the number is gradually on the rise. Elena Banks takes a look at how the small but devout Muslim community keeps the faith while remaining a distinct minority group.

Five times a day, from Latvia to Sudan, from Pakistan to Morocco, the haunting call to prayer stirs the souls of devoted Muslims all around the world. Whether the call arises from a dark basement or a towering mosque, it begins with the same Arabic phrase Muslims have used for nearly 1,400 years. "Allah...u akbar," the faithful sing out. "Allahhhh...u akbar!" (God is great.)

On a cold and snowy winter day, I stand outside an old wooden house in a rundown part of downtown Riga trying to find the entrance to the Muslim Islam Center in Latvia. I know I'm at the right address but there is no obvious sign to show me that this is the place, other than something written in Arabic by the basement windows.

Finally, I'm saved by the MICL's spiritual leader, Mamound Saeed, who comes and meets me outside the house. He leads me down a narrow staircase, and through several small, rather dark rooms to the center's place of worship. The prayer room is covered with carpets embroidered with elaborate arabesques. In a corner, vaguely pointing in the direction of the grand mosque in Mecca, the all-important altar is set aside.

According to the MICL, there are some 10,000 Muslims living in Latvia. But the historian Vladislav Scherbeinsky believes that the first traditional Muslim congregation was established in Riga as long ago as 1902.

"In Islam we don't have nationalities," says Saeed, a dignified-looking man originally from Sudan, to explain the lack of clear historical data concerning the settlement and growth of the Muslim community in Latvia.

Muslims may be bound by their shared faith but their circles in Latvia consist of various nationalities, including not only people from Arabic countries, but also quite a number of Russians and Latvians as well. The Central Bureau of Statistics had seven Islamic groups registered in 2001, but only five in 2002. These range from Idel, a Muslim organization led by Rufia Shervireva, to Iman, a Latvian Chechen congregation led by Musan Machigov.

Saeed explains that one of the main tasks of the MICL is to educate people about Islam. "We don't go to schools or to other public places, but if people are interested they come here and then we talk," he explains. Saeed first came to Latvia back in 1989 to study. Somewhat unusually, he believes that Muslims enjoyed more freedom during Soviet times than they do today.

"The government at that time even gave us a special room in student dorms where we could pray. But now it's more complicated. I feel that there are things that are not said to us but there is definitely a political influence. And still there is so much confusion and so many misunderstandings, but the Koran preaches religion and human tolerance, he says."

Saeed says that every day they pray 20 times for Abraham. "I think that we believe more in Jesus than Christians do."

Ultimately, Saeed hopes that the MICL will build the first mosque in Latvia but he's reluctant to talk about how such a costly project would be realized. "We don't get any international financial support, but we hope at some point in the near future to build a Mosque in Riga. For this we need approximately 3,000 square meters," Saeed explains.

The famed Latvian poet and translator Uldis Berzins is currently laboring away at the first-ever Latvian translation of the Koran. The translation is being supported by Latvijas Kulturkapitala Funds, a government body that allocates state funds to cultural projects.

Berzins, who is fluent in several languages, including Turkish and Arabic, eloquently explains why he wanted to undertake the huge task. "I did it," he says, "to understand and to see the world more clearly. If we want to exist in our language then we have to translate the whole world, or as much of it as possible, at least its fundamental bases. The Koran is one of the key texts of humanity."

Berzins says that the Koran commands sacrifices from Muslims - be it in the form of one's property, or one's relationship with one's relatives, or striving in life in the name of God. Of course, the ultimate, and most notorious example, of this is the jihad (holy war).

It remains to be seen how many people will actually take an interest in Berzins' translation, but given the recent publication of several books about Islamic culture Latvians now have more opportunities than ever to find out for themselves what Islam is really all about.

Dagnia Kirkoz is one of a surprisingly large number of native Latvian converts to the Muslim faith. "My conversion to Islam gave me a psychological tranquility, a gift I had not been able to enjoy before I began communicating with Allah," says Kirkoz, who originally comes from Madona, but now lives permanently in Beirut with her Lebanese husband.

Kirkoz graduated from the University of Latvia with a nursing diploma but developed an interest in Islam through some of the Muslim students she studied with. She was especially impressed by the polite and even moral way in which they dealt with other people. "They were serious in their studies. They undertook the responsibilities of their alienation and schooling with a seriousness unlike all the other young people at the university, who were more interested in pursuing life's pleasures," she says.

"My husband was the wide door through which I entered Islam, for he answered all my questions about this new faith. In the end, he convinced not only my emotions, but also my mind."
 

  Islamic Centers and Organizations

 Iman, Ganibu 23, VENTSPILS, LATVIA. Phone: OO371-9103505, Fax: 003713622159, Email: Umbshair@hotmail.com 

IMAN, BRIVIBAS 104, Riga, LV 1001, LATVIA. Phone: 0037126883284, Email: umbshair@hotmail.com, RL: www.islam.lv, Directions: Take trouley bus OR bus from Central Railway station. Get off at Brivibas iela. (stop station matisa) Activities: 12am-2pm: Saturday, Qur'an, 12am-2Pm: Saturday/Sunday, ARABIC Lange,  In Friday meeting brothers ,in Ramadan pray travih (taraweeh)

Latvian language forum and site, Latvia, internet, Riga, Latvia , LATVIA. General Information: http://www.forum.islammuslim.lv  is ONLY (ethnic) Latvian site/forum. It is in Latvian language, with many articles in English. While site is under construction, forum is working since march of 2007 and has daily activities. Forum has lot of information in Latvian and is unique that way, because www.islam.lv  is in Russian. Forums ir working on rising knowledge of Muslim converts, and calling no Muslims to Islam. More information about forum in English here: http://www.forum.islammuslim.lv/viewtopic.php?id=214  General Activities: Also in forum is project of translating articles and books in Latvian language. This is very important, because we do not have any Muslim written book about Islam. We are working on translating articles about different Muslim and Islam topics, and have many of them in our forum. Soon, insh Allah, will be finished CyberSallat modification to Latvian language, and transliteration of some small suras for beginning memorizing. Also we are recording islamafobia in Latvian press, sometimes answering to its inaccuracies and sometimes it is changed to our information or published our Muslim view. There has been 2 presentations of Islam in Latvian University.

   Muslim Owned Business

Halal Chicken, Plavnieki, Riga, LATVIA, Phone: +371-29693310, Email: aftab_u@yahoo.com, General Information: Offering Halal Chicken + Halal Meat Call (+371) 2 969 33 10 Call (+371) 2 968 15 05

References
Islam in Latvia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Latvia   , October, 2008).
Info please ( http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107706.html ,  October, 2008).
Islam Finder ( http://www.islamicfinder.org/cityPrayerNew.php?country=latvia   , October, 2008).
Latvia's Muslim community reaches out
( http://www.muslimnews.co.uk/news/news.php?article=6839  , October, 2008).
Anonymous, Documents from Representatives of Islamic Organizations in Latvia, October 2008.