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20 May, 2020 13:36

Ukraine to please its tiny Muslim population by making Islam’s major holy days national holidays

Ukraine to please its tiny Muslim population by making Islam’s major holy days national holidays

Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha may soon become state holidays in Ukraine, where Muslims constitute… anywhere between 0.2 and four percent of the population.

The somewhat puzzling change to Ukraine’s working calendar has been announced by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office this week, after he held a meeting with representatives of the Crimean Tatar community. Celebrating two of Islam’s most holy days as an entire nation is one of several promises he made.

Muslims may also get a big mosque in Kiev sometime in the future, and a politician of Crimean Tatar background was given the office of a deputy foreign minister.

Crimean Tatars are by far the largest predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Ukraine – or at least that was the case before their homeland, the Crimean peninsula, parted ways with Kiev and reunited with Russia in 2014.

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Out of roughly 277,000 Crimean Tatars that once lived in Ukraine, more than 232,000 resided in Crimea, which is now a Russian territory. Yet, even there they constitute around 10.6 percent of the peninsula’s total population. Those, who stayed within Ukraine’s borders, constitute a tiny minority within the nation’s roughly 43 million-strong population.

Some Crimean Tatars staunchly opposed the peninsula’s transition and stayed loyal to Kiev, becoming an expedient political tool to turn against Moscow. Their persecution under Joseph Stalin has also been brought into the picture as an argument.

They also get their share of preferences for certain jobs. ATR, a private Crimean Tatar television channel, has been so dependent on government funding that a delay in government financing earlier this year brought it to the brink of closure.

Yet, many of the benefits are more symbolic than practical, like a promise to turn Crimea into an autonomous state of Crimean Tatars within Ukraine’s borders. Anton Drobovich, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory – a state agency tasked with “restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people,” which has been mostly reduced to erasing any memories about Ukraine’s Soviet past, at least when it comes to monuments and street names – floated such an idea in March. He said, though, that it could only be possible after the peninsula “returns” to Ukraine.

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Making Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha national holidays is definitely within Zelensky’s power, but such a move may look a bit odd, considering how small a minority Muslims are in the country. This is especially true since apart from Crimea, some of the largest Muslim communities are located in the east of the country. Many Ukrainian Muslims now live in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which don’t take orders from Kiev.

There has not been a proper census since 2001, so there is no accurate figure on the size of its population and the share of Muslims in it. According to various sources, Islam believers constitute anywhere between under 100,000 and up to an optimistic two million in Ukraine. The World Bank estimated its population at 44.6 million in 2018. So even with an upper two-million estimate, less than five percent of Ukrainians will be observing the promised new holidays because of their faith.

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