Discovering the Islamic side of Vilnius

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Sunni Muslim Religious Centre – the Muftiate
Foto: Ada Vilušis

Vilnius has long been known as an extraordinary city, made of various cultural mosaics. For centuries, the multicultural face of the city has been visualised by representatives of various nations, practicing different religions – from Judaism to Islam. However, the Islamic side of the city is yet to be explored and understood in its entirety; many Lithuanians to date do not understand it, some even deliberately try to ignore it. The probable root cause of the lack of interest and the desire to understand stems from the tabloid media's negative depictions of Muslims and their current narrative that is quick to demonise adherents of the Islamic faith.

So, what are the people who practice Islam really like? Vicious, vindictive, radical, as they are often described by typical Lithuanian online commentator? Or maybe the opposite – spiritual, hospitable, and tolerant of other people who follow other religions, as is required by the Islamic holy scripture, the Quran. I decided to explore the Muslim community in Vilnius and obtain the answers to many questions that I have.

The acquaintance began with refugees

My acquaintance with the Vilnius Muslim community began quite accidentally. While participating in an international youth exchange, I recently visited "Caritas" Community Integration Centre in Vilnius, whose main objective is to successfully integrate refugees, asylum seekers, newly arrived third-country nationals into main stream Lithuanian society. During my visit at "Caritas", I was introduced to a Syrian refugee family from the war-shaken city of Aleppo. The family consisted of husband, wife and their two sons.

They have been living in a rented flat in Vilnius for a month, and have been taking part in an intensive Lithuanian language course to increase their proficiency. Prior to meeting the family, I had a completely different image in my head – angry, dirty newcomers from the Middle East asking for privileges. Meeting the family promptly dissipated "living" stereotypes in my mind about refugees. In the centre, I saw young, happy, sincere individuals who enjoyed the care, assistance, and calm life in Lithuania that surrounded them.

I was surprised by the handicraft made by the head of the family. He produced impressive sculptures and jewellery, made from a simple wire and recycled cans, he sold his sculptures and jewellery to earn extra money for his family.

After meeting the family, I started to contemplate upon a basic question. It is no secret that the number of refugees coming from the conflict-torn Middle East and Africa is increasing, therefore, the numbers of people who practice Islam is increasing too. So, during the meeting, the question about how they would be able to adapt to our country occupied my thoughts. After all, Lithuania is a Catholic country – different culturally and religiously than the one in which they lived before.

Where do Muslims pray in Vilnius?

Immediately after the meeting with the refugee family, I did not hesitate to ask two of my Muslim colleagues from the United Kingdom working on the youth exchange project in Lithuania to show me where Muslims pray in Vilnius. Unfortunately, the city where the Muslim community has been living for almost six hundred years cannot boast of having its own mosque. It turns out that the mosque which stood for centuries was razed to ground as a molehill by the Soviet government at the end of the 1960s.

"For most Muslims, religion is an extremely important part of life, forming their lifestyle, values, and relationships. Observant Muslims pray five times a day, and the mosque serves not only as a place for worship but also as a community gathering point and a centre for education. Usually, the mosque organises various integration programs for refugees and conducts charity campaigns to support people no matter what religion they profess," explains Denis, a British Muslim of Bangladeshi heritage from the UK.

Today, Muslims living or staying in Vilnius, pray in a modest Sunni Muslim Religious Centre – the Muftiate, founded in 1998. Every day, true Islamic life awakens there – people pray, recite the Quran, organise lessons for children about Islam, celebrate religious festivals and traditional celebrations.

A hospitable reception

So, on Friday afternoon, we visited the Muftiate. Unlike Catholicism and Christianity, the most important day of the Islamic world is Friday, when the congregational mass of the Jumu'ah prayer is held. During the Jumu'ah, Muslims pray after hearing a sermon told by the Muslim priest called an Imam.

The Muftiate, located on Smolenskas street, does not seem to differ from other buildings built in the Soviet era. Only the eye is drawn to the table attached to the entrance, denoting that it is "the Centre of Islamic Culture and Education".

"As'Salam alaikum" (Arabic translated meaning "peace be upon you") was the common phrase that greeted me and my UK colleagues once we entered the Muftiate.

"Wa'Alaikum As'salam" (Arabic translated meaning "and peace be upon you too") respond my friends from the UK. Their interactions gave the impression that they had known each other for centuries, whilst the truth being that they had just met. I found this to be quite striking, as they were from different countries, regardless of this they interacted with each other as though they were old acquaintances.

"Unity and coming together are among the basic principles of Islam. Allah has commanded all the believers to adhere to His religion and to be united, and not to be divided. He has enjoined coming together for all acts of worship in order to achieve this unity," Denis explained to me.

A lot of people who came here to pray – businessmen coming to Lithuania for work, diplomats, and city guests. Visitors from Egypt, Tajikistan, Turkey, Chechnya and other countries are eagerly waiting for the Jumu'ah prayers to begin.

The appearance of the majority of the prayers reveals that they did not come from Lithuania. Therefore, it's hard for me to go unnoticed. Being attracted to the atypical appearance of the Muftiate visitor, several men immediately get interested in what wind has blown me here.

"Are you a Muslim?" an Egyptian asks with a curiosity.

"No, I came to see how Muslims pray," I explain. When they become aware that I am a Catholic, they do not seem to be frustrated and continue speaking with me.

After the pre-prayer conversations, I am accompanied to the hallway, where, a few minutes before the services, I am nicely asked to take off my shoes. Meanwhile, in another room, my friends perform an Islamic ablution (i.e. ritual washing) called wudu – during which some religious recitations are spoken. Shortly afterwards, we all enter the prayer room. There are two prayer rooms in Muftiate, one for men, the other for women.

The room has a large red carpet featuring several tens of niches, symbolising mihrab, that is, niches in Muslim temples. These mihrabs are oriented towards the holy city of Mecca.

The sermon takes place in Arabic, although at some points Imam translates the sermon in Turkish and Russian. Apparently, due to the fact that a considerable part of the adherents come from Russia and Turkey.

"The sermon in mosques in the United Kingdom are held in both Arabic and English for everyone to understand," says my colleague Amar, a British-born Pakistani.

The Jumu'ah prayers last for a short time, approximately twenty minutes. At first glance, the services stand out with their harmony, people are focused on praying, it seems as if they were lulled into a trance.

At the end of the worship, a few people approach me and politely ask who has inspired me to visit the Islamic Centre. While talking to every person, I felt a great respect for my interest in Islam.

On the occasion of the first visit, the Muslim community of Vilnius presented me with a taqiyah (i.e. a short, rounded Muslim skullcap) and the Quran. I was also invited to the office of Ibrahim Ceyhan, a religious affairs counsellor from the Turkish Embassy in Lithuania, and Muhammet Karakaya, a trade advisor, to share my first impressions on Islam. Here they told me more about the Muslim community in Vilnius.

When leaving the Muftiate, I am addressed in Russian by a group of men from Chechnya. They wish me good luck, jokingly adding: "Now you are a true Muslim."

After worship – halal food

After the Jumu'ah prayers, we proceed to a Middle Eastern restaurant located in the Old Town. The food here is prepared in accordance with strict halal requirements.

At the doorstep of the restaurant, we are welcomed by the Bangladeshi waiter named Hasib. He quickly establishes contact with Denis, since both of them are united not only by the same religion but also by their ability to communicate in Bengali.

In accordance with the halal rules, the livestock is slaughtered for food using well-sharpened knives to make their death as fast as possible. Sometimes animals are stunned before slaughter. It is also important that the animal does not suffer from stress before the slaughter, therefore, it is prohibited to slaughter animals in the presence of another animal. Furthermore, animals have to be free of any diseases or illnesses for it to be considered halal.

The slaughtering process is also ritualised. It is only allowed to be done by a Muslim, who while slaughtering is thanking Allah for food and recites a prayer to show their appreciation for the sustenance provided.

It is also forbidden to eat meat from animals slaughtered in other ways for the Muslims. Moreover, halal prevents the use of pork, amphibians, and unscaled fish. Muslims believe that halal food is cleaner, healthier and ethical.

According to Muslims living in Vilnius, it is not hard to come by a halal food in the city.

"There are more than ten different places in Vilnius where halal meat is easily available. The biggest Lithuanian poultry farms have been preparing chicken products for several years that meet halal slaughter requirements, which can easily be bought at supermarkets," states an Indian medical doctor who has accompanied us to the restaurant from the Muftiate.

Muslims through the eyes of Lithuanians

I return to stereotypes again. Some Muslims that I met, did not conceal their bitterness which originated from the prejudices that they faced from society. According to the opinion poll, conducted two years ago by the Institute for Ethnic Studies, Muslims in Lithuania are one of the least desirable groups of society, such as the Roma, ex-prisoners, people with mental illness, homosexuals or Chechens. The results of the study suggest that a third of Lithuanians would refuse to rent out their homes for Muslims or live in the Muslim neighbourhood. Meanwhile, about a fifth would not like to work with Muslims at the same workplace.

In the Muftiate, I met a Lithuanian woman that converted to Islam, who highlighted quite vividly that throughout twelve years of her marriage with a Muslim she still does not understand the attitude of some Lithuanians and the state authorities towards people practicing Islam.

"Throughout twelve years, I've been left wondering why people don't pay attention to the fact that Muslims have been in Lithuania for many years. If you want to talk about Islam openly – it's a taboo in Lithuania. If you are non-white, if your skin complexation is dark, no matter which country you're from, Pakistan or Afghanistan... If you're a Muslim, you're wearing hijab in Lithuania and you're praying here they won't understand you. They treat all Muslims the same," she conveys.

Some people may find the results of the afore-mentioned poll somewhat exaggerated. However, you can easily learn the prevailing public opinion by reading the comments of articles related to Islam. This is probably the true cross-section of society – a real "raw material" for public opinion polling companies and sociologists.

The comments under the recently published article in one popular Lithuanian news websites on whether or not Vilnius needs a mosque has confirmed the results of the poll: "What's the mosque? Let them go home"; "Lord, protect us from these prayers in our country"; "For every terrorist attack a mosque should be destroyed"; "What kind of integration will be when they wander on the streets of Lithuania wrapped in bed sheets?"; "Look at how they live – worse than animals and behave in the same way"; "One more recruiting centre for ISIS and al-Qaeda?" and so on.

"In such cases, being a Muslim I want to shout out that this is totally untrue. After all, in Islam the greatest sins are to murder and to take your own life," a Lithuanian university student tries to refute the prevailing erroneous stereotypes.

She converted to Islam two years ago but does not openly confess her conversion to her relatives.

"My closest friends know that I'm a Muslim. Those with whom I've had a strong bond they understand me and we're still friends. The ties broke down with some people after I converted to Islam. Also, there are some friends with whom I'm communicating for years, however, I don't dare to confess that I'm a Muslim. Perhaps I try to observe how tolerant a person is and how they'd react to my confession. Although, I recently gained more and more courage to confess, because I'm proud of my choice and I don't think I should hide it, because it's not a shame," she says.

This article is written during the international youth exchange project "Beyond the Label #Refugee". The project has been funded by the European Union's "Erasmus+" programme.

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