As tragedies continue to mount since Russia invaded its European neighbor in February, a Muslim group with historical ties to Ukraine is speaking out.
The Islamic Association of Manitoba hosted a virtual chat with the chairman of the Muslim Council of Ukraine, Sheikh Seyran Aryfov, who is in Lviv, in an effort to give the public a fresh perspective on the war on Sunday afternoon.
The first documented emergence of Islamic culture in Ukraine dates back to the 19th century, but the southern region of Ukraine, Crimea, was once ruled by the descendants of the great Genghis Khan centuries earlier.
“Ukraine has a very old Muslim community. It’s been there for centuries,” said Idris Elbakri, a member of the association’s board of directors.
“Muslims are a global community… and Ukraine has a very old Muslim community, and I think we have a lot to learn from how they managed to survive for so long,” Elbakri added.
“At the same time, we as human beings should always be with those in need at the time of suffering.”
Aryfov, who is of Tartar descent, has worked in Ukraine for more than 20 years. He has spent the past five years as chairman of the Muslim Council of Ukraine, which last year became an umbrella organization for several groups working in the country.
Thanks to the help of a translator, Aryfov said it was difficult to describe what is happening in Ukraine, especially in the most affected parts of the country, such as the south, east and in Kyiv.
Muslims around the world have seen many tragedies such as Palestine, Yemen, Syria in recent years, but “people are a bit shocked now to see this in Europe,” he said.
Aryfov estimates that there were around 1.5 million Muslims living in Ukraine before the Russian invasion, and most of them were in the regions hardest hit by the war.
Many non-Ukrainian Muslims, such as university students studying in the country, have returned to their home countries, he added.
“They were very, very deeply affected by the war. They lived in shelters with no electricity, no food, no heating. [It’s] at the end of winter. It’s still quite cold and we know that around 10,000 Muslims were killed,” Aryfov said.
He says some Muslims died defending their country, including those who fought as part of the Ukrainian army.
And mosques, traditional holy places of worship, have closed in the hardest-hit parts of the country, while those in western Ukraine have been turned into shelters for displaced Ukrainians.
“Those who walk away from the war, we offer them food, we offer them clothes… we offer them medicine,” Aryfov said, adding that the Muslim community is trying to help transport people to places they are trying to reach outside the country. .
The Muslim Council of Ukraine receives donations from the global Islamic community, but most donations come from individuals, not larger organizations. He says this is partly due to the ties Arab nations have with Russia.
“Islamic countries, with few exceptions, had a much weaker and lukewarm response to the war. Many countries have interests with Russia and therefore most of them did not clearly support Ukraine” , Aryfov said. “They don’t want those interests compromised.”
“Russian media is very strong globally and very strong in the Arabic language and I think that has allowed them to deceive many segments of the Arab population and mislead them with misinformation,” he said. added.
He believes Muslims should have an honest and clear moral stance around war, one that does not engage in double standards.
Elbakri hopes to launch a fundraising page to donate funds to Ukraine, while allowing for further discussion among Manitoba Muslims about the need to support the war-torn Ukrainian population.
“When things happen overseas, it always has ripple effects on segments of our community, and we try to give people a voice as much as possible,” he said. “We try to be there for those who need support when they need it.”