'This mosque is for Allah. It will be neither fanatic, nor inciting. I want to invite rabbis, priests, sheikhs to the opening'

Islam no longer a footnote in Abu Ghosh, as its vast mosque nears completion

Mayor of village beloved by Jewish Israelis says towering new place of worship — built with a little funding from Israel, and a lot from Chechnya — will espouse ‘only peace and tolerance’

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

The construction site of the new mosque in Abu Ghosh, May 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
The construction site of the new mosque in Abu Ghosh, May 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

If all goes according to plan, by the end of the year a mega mosque — second in size only to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — will open in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh outside Jerusalem, largely funded by the Islamic Republic of Chechnya.

Located 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) west of Jerusalem on the main highway to Tel Aviv and with a population of just over 6,000, Abu Ghosh — renowned for its hummus restaurants, classical music festival and ancient picturesque churches — boasts close relations with its predominantly Jewish surroundings. Somehow, Islam was always a footnote in the village’s public image. But that may change soon.

Construction on the mosque, tentatively referred to as “the Mosque of Peace,” began two years ago, is currently in full swing, and is expected to end by October, Abu Ghosh Mayor Salim Jaber told The Times of Israel. He said the municipality decided to construct a new mosque to accommodate local worshipers, who have been forced to pray on the sidewalks on Fridays and holidays for lack of current prayer space in the town.

While the existing Abu Ghosh mosque is only 150 square meters (1,615 square feet) in size, the new mosque will spread out over 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet), and will hold thousands of worshipers.

The total cost of the mosque, estimated at NIS 20 million (about $5.5 million), was to be covered by local donors. But when funds fell short, the government of Chechnya and private Chechen donors stepped in, as the four clans that comprise Abu Ghosh trace their origins to the Caucasus, from which they claim to have emigrated in the 16th century. Jaber said that at least $3 million of the mosque’s funds originated in Chechnya.

“We began the process, and then the Chechens joined later,” Jaber said.

Some funding also came from the government of Israel.

As the towering mosque with its two massive minarets nears completion, residents of Abu Ghosh are physically confronted with their historic and cultural links to Chechnya, some viewing them more cynically than others.

“I consider myself neither Israeli nor Palestinian, but a Chechen Muslim,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, who works at a local kitchen supplies store. “Abu Ghosh, who gave the name to the village, came from Chechnya. Those are our roots.”

The Abu Ghosh clan arrived with the Circassian units of the Ottoman Empire that conquered the land in the 16th century. Situating itself on the road between Jerusalem and Jaffa, the family gained power by collecting tax from travelers.

Ibrahim said that Chechen government officials visit Abu Ghosh annually, promising a plot of land and a money stipend to each local resident who emigrates to Chechnya and settles there. The Chechen government also donates money to fix up roads and sidewalks in Abu Ghosh, he noted.

Mohammed Ibrahim (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Mohammed Ibrahim (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“Today, the younger generation here is more curious about its history. We want to know where we came from.”

But not everyone in Abu Ghosh even seemed to acknowledge the locals’ historic connection to Chechnya.

“Are we Chechnyan?” asked Ishaq, a man in his 40s who lives near the mosque, turning to his friend. “It’s all nonsense, in order to raise money. They would have even said we have German ancestors to get donations.”

Efrat Orbach, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said the government does not intervene in the funding of religious institutions, leaving the matter entirely to the municipal authorities. She added that the Abu Ghosh mosque did, however, receive some funding from the Israeli government, but did not say how much.

The mosque is being built on Akhmad Kadyrov Street, named after the former president of Chechnya assassinated by Islamist separatists in 2004. His son, current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, told Russia Today that he planned to attend the mosque’s inauguration.

According to Russia Today, the mosque will be decorated in the Chechen tradition and offer Chechen language and culture courses.

“These people emigrated to the Middle East five centuries ago. They want to preserve their national identity and cultural identity. This is worthy of deep respect,” Kadyrov said.

Despite the association by some of Chechnya with radical Islam — following the Boston terrorist attacks perpetrated by Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — mayor Jaber insisted that his mosque will espouse only peace and tolerance.

“This mosque is for Allah. It will be neither fanatic, nor inciting,” Jaber said. “I want to invite all the people of Israel to the opening: rabbis, priests, sheikhs. Anyone who loves Abu Ghosh.”

Ibrahim, for his part, was not concerned that Chechnya would try to impose its flavor of Islam in Abu Ghosh.

“They will not intervene, because there are borders. Their practices are different than ours … for example, they must grow their beards and we don’t necessarily do that.”

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