Saturday, December 2, 2017

Religion, Not Language, has Preserved Tatars of Belarus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Today marks the 620th anniversary of the arrival of Tatars on the territory of what is now Belarus, a community that now numbers 10,000 and that has survived not because of its language but rather because of its close attachment to its religion, Islam, according to Dmitry Radkevich, the head of Council of Imams of Belarus.

              The event is being marked in Minsk’s central mosque as well as in mosques in the regions where the Tatars are most numerous, and for this celebration, diplomats and Muslim leaders from Russia, Poland, Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestine have come to take part (

            The first Tatars came to what is now Belarus at the time of the Golden Horde at the invitation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They were committed Muslims at the time, but they showed themselves then and later quite prepared to fight against their fellow followers of Islam in defense of their homeland.

            More recently, many have called all Muslims in Belarus Tatars although in fact many of them are ethnically distinct. Before World War II, they were a dynamic community with some 40 mosques and an active publishing program. But with the Soviet occupation, almost all of this disappeared. By 1991, there was only one mosque left, in the town of Ivye.

            Ivan Shabanovich, the head of the Ivye Muslim Religious Community, says that the Tatars have always lived in a compact settlement there which they call Muravshizna; and they are proud that even during the worst periods of Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, they continued to attend services.

            At the same time, he and other Tatar leaders there stress, the Tatars of Belarus have always gotten along well with other Belarusians, are loyal to the Belarusian state, and accept that the Tatars are part of the Belarusian ethnos, however proud of their distinctive history they remain to this day. 

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