Page last updated at 00:04 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 01:04 UK

Tajikistan begins Central Asia's biggest mosque

By Khayrullo Fayz
BBC Central Asia service

Drawing ofTajikistan mosque
The mosque will hold 150,000 worshippers when completed

On what now looks like an enormous car park in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, work has begun on a gigantic new mosque.

One square block of stone has been laid by President Emomali Rakhmon to signal the start of construction.

When completed in five years, Central Asia's poorest state will be home to the region's largest mosque, dwarfing the Turkmenbashi mosque in neighbouring Turkmenistan, which can hold 10,000 people.

It will include tall minarets and painted columns that are to symbolise the world and the seven gates to paradise.

There will be fountains to represent Tajikistan's large water reserves as well as a museum, library and conference halls.

But with the capacity to hold 150,000 worshippers in a city of just over 700,000 people, critics are saying the mosque is an extravagance and that the money would be better spent on poverty reduction.

Public opinion

Tajik state media say that the multi-million dollar project will not cost the cash-strapped country anything, because the government of Qatar has agreed to foot the bill as part of what it calls its commitment to Islam.

So many people are homeless and barely making ends meet. Why don't they build several houses for those needy people?
Tajik resident

On the streets of Dushanbe, one resident said he liked the idea of having the biggest mosque in the region, especially if it is free.

Sobit Valiev, 70, says the country may as well be a record breaker in some field.

"Why shouldn't we", he says. "At the end of the day, it's not our money, is it? If I am alive in five years time, sure I will go there and pray."

Ismail, a driver, thinks the mosque is a good idea, but he is worried that there will be corruption.

"I am sure there will be a few officials who are going to get richer. It is a big project and big money."

While some Tajiks seem to welcome the plan, others are more critical.

Salohiddin, a 34-year-old from Dushanbe says helping the many poor would be a better way to spend the money.

"It's one of the biggest values of Islam, isn't it? So many people are homeless and barely making ends meet. Why don't they build several houses for those needy people?"

Combating extremism

Some analysts say the aim of the mosque is to give the government more control over the way people practise their faith.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon - 22 October 2009
This must be a place that unites people in the service of God and clean ideas
Emomali Rakhmon
Tajik president

The Tajik authorities admit that they are hoping to build more than a beautiful mosque.

They want it to be seen as part of their effort to tackle extremism in a region which is struggling to contain the rise of radical groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir or Wahabbi sects which have been gaining popularity in the Central Asian nation.

The government has accused radical sects and renegade Islamic opposition groups of planting several bombs in Dushanbe in recent years.

On 19 October the authorities confirmed that four suspected members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were killed in a shootout with police in the north of the country and one person was arrested.

The IMU is a militant group with links to the Taliban.

Security forces have also been fighting militants in the east, close to the Afghan border, raising fears that the instability in Afghanistan could be spilling over into Tajikistan.

The mosque will reportedly cost tens of millions of dollars to build
Construction is expected to end in 2014
More than one-fifth of the population of Dushanbe will fit inside
90% of the Tajik population is Muslim

The authorities have also closed down dozens of what they call "unauthorised" mosques and have begun registering all places of worship.

Speaking at the start of construction of the mosque, President Rakhmon said "this must be a place that unites people in the service of God and clean ideas.

"It should not be a platform for non-traditional and alien ideas."

Radical past

The government appears anxious to see that Tajikistan is not plunged back into the chaos of the 1990s, when the country was embroiled in a five-year civil war against a coalition of Islamists.

The UN brokered a peace deal in 1997, by which time thousands had been killed and the economy was in tatters.

The site of the Dushanbe mosque
This is the site that will house Central Asia's largest mosque

Today a combination of the recession, drug trafficking from neighbouring Afghanistan and widespread corruption seems to have left Tajikistan highly vulnerable to the spread of religious extremism once again.

A local journalist said all these factors were contributing to the radicalisation of thousands of people.

Analysts are also warning that with little effective political opposition, disadvantaged and unemployed young people could be tempted to join radical groups.

But the authorities are hoping that this new mosque will draw masses of people away from the more clandestine radical places of worship.

The only problem is that the mosque will not be ready for another five years.

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