Russian Muslim Clerics Spark Controversy By Banning Interfaith Marriages

A group of Russian Muslim scholars have ordered a ban on believers marrying non-Muslims, a ruling that sparked dissent within the country's national Islamic council and raised eyebrows nationwide.

The Councils of Clerics of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims issued its fatwa, or ruling, in July, banning interfaith marriages for Muslims. The ruling was only published on November 10, though it was not immediately unclear why.

According to the fatwa, Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women only in "exclusive situations" and with the approval of local muftis.

One day after the fatwa was published, however, the deputy chairman of the spiritual directorate Damir Mukhetdinov issued a statement saying that the decision did not necessarily reflect the opinion of the larger directorate.

"In this particular matter, the opinions differ and part of our clergy does not support or only partially supports the fatwa in question," Mukhetdinov said in his statement.

Russia was a secular state, he also argued, and therefore the decisions by the Council of Clerics has no legal power.

The ruling theoretically affects more than 15 million Russian Muslims -- the second largest denomination in the country after Orthodox Christians.

Russian Muslims are a growing political presence in the country, something the Kremlin has sought to finesse given the surge in interest among Russian Christians and the political power of the Orthodox Church along with concerns from other major religions.

Besides Islam, these denominations include Buddhism, Judaism, and some Christian faiths that have comparatively small communities in Russia, such as Roman Catholicism.

One religious expert told the Interfax news agency that fatwas must be supported by all clergy if they are issued by the directorate's leading clerics, otherwise they are invalid.

Roman Silantyev, an Islamic expert at Moscow’s State Linguistic University, also said that there were many Islamic clerics across Russia whose wives were not Muslim.

He said that the vast majority of Russians Muslims in Russia were followers of a specific branch of Sunni Islam that allows for interfaith marriages.

With reporting by Interfax