SHAFAQNA -Â Four years ago, Moldova’s Muslims, aÂ tiny minority inÂ this overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country ofÂ 3.56 million, won theÂ legal right toÂ organize. But now, following theÂ arrests ofÂ suspected collaborators with Islamic State, they face another daunting challengeÂ â€” fighting theÂ stereotype that Moldovan Muslims are terrorists.
OnÂ May 30, two Moldovan men were sentenced toÂ 30 days ofÂ pre-trial detention inÂ the Moldovan capital, ChiÈ™inÄƒu, onÂ charges ofÂ allegedly offering refuge toÂ “mercenaries” fromÂ Islamic State andÂ “creating aÂ criminal organization.” Only one ofÂ their names (Abu Israfil) has been released.
TheÂ charges came three days after Moldovan police detained two men andÂ two women suspected ofÂ intending toÂ travel with three children toÂ Syria via Moldova.
One ofÂ the men, aÂ native ofÂ Dagestan, andÂ a 16-year-old girl originally fromÂ Chechnya were deported toÂ Russia. AÂ second man, aÂ native ofÂ Chechnya with aÂ Tajik passport, is inÂ the custody ofÂ migration andÂ refugee officials. TheÂ Chechnya-born woman accompanying him, who traveled toÂ Moldova fromÂ France, remains inÂ police custody. TheÂ status ofÂ the three children is unknown.
Names forÂ the group have not been released.
Despite these arrests, theÂ country’s risk forÂ ISIS activity generally has not attracted international notice. AtÂ least one ISIS militant, Abdullah al-Moldovi (Abdullah theÂ Moldovan), is believed toÂ hail fromÂ Moldova, RFE/RL has reported, but theÂ country was not included inÂ the US Department ofÂ State’s recently released world report onÂ terrorism.
But forÂ the country’s handful ofÂ Muslims, these arrests already have had consequences.
Marina Hasan, one ofÂ roughly 20 women who gather forÂ worship each Sunday inÂ a makeshift mosque inÂ an industrial district ofÂ ChiÈ™inÄƒu, recounts how her 10-year-old son’s classmates “tell him that he andÂ our whole family are terrorists fromÂ Syria …”
“You always have toÂ prove that we will not hurt anyone, even though I am also fromÂ this country,” she said with frustration.
Worshippers atÂ the ChiÈ™inÄƒu mosque â€“ about 200, primarily male, onÂ Fridays â€“ speak mostly inÂ Romanian. Only prayers are uttered inÂ Arabic.
“[W]e suffer more than we benefit [from these arrests] andÂ we are stigmatized as terrorists, which is not true,” complained 37-year-old Muslim Women’s League ofÂ Moldova President Natalia Tcacenco, who converted toÂ Islam ten years ago. Poverty andÂ “political instability” pose far greater risks toÂ Moldova, she added.
Muslim Moldovans, estimated byÂ believers toÂ number several thousand, have reasons toÂ be sensitive about theÂ ISIS arrests, however. Until 2011, theÂ government denied them official registration as aÂ group. Drop-ins byÂ police onÂ worship services were regularly reported, as well as alleged harassment.
TheÂ Moldovan Orthodox Church, theÂ country’s dominant Christian denomination, strongly opposed theÂ decision toÂ register theÂ Islamic League, aÂ non-governmental organization that represents theÂ Muslim community. Some Moldovans still refer toÂ Islam as aÂ “sect.”
TheÂ ChiÈ™inÄƒu mosque’s 46-year-old imam, Ismail Abdel Wahhab, maintains, however, that now “nothing prevents us fromÂ showing ourselves as Muslims.” AÂ co-chairperson ofÂ the Islamic League, Wahhab moved toÂ Moldova fromÂ Jordan 12 years ago.
Yet Wahhab andÂ others appear anxious toÂ underline that theÂ individuals charged do not reflect Moldova’s Muslim community, andÂ that radicalism does not reflect true Islam.Â
“Muslim people are nice, andÂ they do not drink, do not swear. What terrorists are we talking about?” 58-year-old Vasile Dumitru, aÂ security guard atÂ ChiÈ™inÄƒu’s mosque, asked rhetorically.
Tcacenco ofÂ the Muslim Women’s League takes issue with theÂ fact that theÂ detained women shown inÂ television footage did not dress as observant Muslims. “Were they really Muslim?” she wondered.
Imam Wahhab says that Moldova’s Islamic League tries toÂ guard against radicalism byÂ building ties with other countries’ Islamic associations that focus onÂ “religious knowledge, away fromÂ extremes andÂ extremism.”
“Wherever we feel that fanaticism is beginning, we must stop it before it generates intoÂ something worse, as is theÂ case ofÂ ISIS,” he commented.
TheÂ government was not available toÂ comment about its own approach forÂ warding off ISIS recruiters.
Many ofÂ the Muslim Moldovans interviewed believe theÂ arrests were staged byÂ the state forÂ unclear reasons â€“ aÂ common reaction inÂ former Soviet republics when ordinary people cannot explain events.
“When you want toÂ cover aÂ bigger problem, theÂ authorities invent another problem inÂ order toÂ distract theÂ public’s attention,” detailed Wahhab. “Allegedly, they are combating terrorism, but what about theÂ bank scandal?” he asked inÂ reference toÂ a loan scam that cost Moldovan taxpayers 16 billion lei (over $847.46 million).
Wahhab questions why theÂ two detained women, previously living inÂ Norway andÂ France, would try toÂ reach Syria via Moldova. “Something does not add up. All I know is that all countries are receiving financial help if they are working toÂ combat terrorism.”
“There are political interests behind these scenarios,” agreed one 36-year-old ChiÈ™inÄƒu businessman who gave his name as Mohammed.
Since theÂ initial announcement ofÂ the arrests, police have not elaborated further or explained why theÂ group ofÂ four suspects would have used Moldova as aÂ halfway point forÂ their alleged journey toÂ Syria.
TheÂ group’s alleged interest inÂ Moldova, however, is not unusual forÂ such cases. InÂ early May, British citizens Arif Malik andÂ Sara Kiran, traveling with their four children, requested toÂ be deported toÂ Moldova fromÂ Turkey after being stopped inÂ Ankara under suspicion ofÂ travel toÂ Syria. Reasons forÂ the request andÂ the family’s current whereabouts are not known.
Despite repeated attempts byÂ EurasiaNet.org, representatives ofÂ the General Police Inspectorate did not respond toÂ requests forÂ further comment.
Andrei PÃ¢ntea, anÂ expert onÂ security issues atÂ ChiÈ™inÄƒu’s non-governmental Institute forÂ Public Policy, though, minimizes theÂ risks fromÂ ISIS. TheÂ “dangers coming fromÂ Moscow” â€“ aÂ reference toÂ neighboring Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed rebels â€“ “are heavier than those coming fromÂ the Islamic Stateâ€¦,” he said.