hidden europe 62

Eastern Crescent: Islam in the Baltic region

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Sundial at mosque at Raižiai in Lithuania (photo © hidden europe).


Lipka Tatars settled in the rural region south of Vilnius in the 14th century, and their descendants still reside in villages in north-east Poland, western Belarus and southern Lithuania. They are a Muslim minority in a region of Europe which is often incorrectly perceived as being homogeneously Christian. We report on Baltic Islam.

Many who venture west from Minsk towards Lida just stick to the main M6 highway. So it’s easy to miss Iwye, a small community which lies just a couple of kilometres north of the main road. Ask anyone from Belarus what they know about Iwye (Іўе in Belarusian and sometimes transliterated as Ivye or Iwje) and, if they have heard of it at all, they will almost certainly mention tomatoes. The Iwye tomato crop is said to be the finest in Belarus.

A monument erected in 2012 in the centre of town suggests that Iwye may have more to offer than tasty tomatoes. The monument celebrates religious harmony in the Iwye region, acknowledging the contributions made by Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics to the development of Iwye. For the Jewish community, it must be said, engagement in Iwye life ended abruptly. In the 1930s, the Jewish faithful were the most numerous group in Iwye. All but a very few perished in the Holocaust, the majority of them on a single day in May 1942 when people in the Iwye ghetto were murdered by the Nazis.

To some, the mention of Muslims in the Iwye monument may come as a surprise. Yet on the south side of town on a road called Sovietskaya, a neat wooden mosque is a quiet reminder of Islamic devotion in western Belarus.

Enclaves of Islam

At a time in Europe when antipathy towards Muslims features strongly in nationalist discourse in many countries, it is easy to forget that Muslims have been part of European life and culture for hundreds of years. But here in north-east Europe, there is an indigenous Muslim community whose members are quick to assert that they are just as Polish, Lithuanian or Belarusian as their Christian neighbours. These Muslim families are generally very rooted in rural communities and small towns; they often proudly trace local connections that extend back over centuries.

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