MOSCOW - A recent row over the wearing of hijab in schools in southern Russia highlights long grievances by the Muslim minority about restrictions on their freedom to practice religion in their country.
"We can talk about the need to protect the religious freedoms and sentiments of all Russians," Abdullah Mukhametov, a Muslim political and religious analyst, told Reuters.
But at the end of the day there is a distinct feeling that some religions are simply more equal than others."
A debate has gripped Russia this week after five Muslim students were banned from attending school in the southern Stavropol region over wearing hijab.
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School officials have argued that wearing the Islamic veil violates the school policy, which requires students to attend classes in secular clothes.
"Here everything should be very simple: it is an institution, so it's a secular dress code, business-dress style. That's all. End of discussion," school's principal Marina Savchenko said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also waded into the row, signaling support for banning the headscarf on grounds of the secular nature of the country.
We have a secular state and we must proceed from this basis, Putin said when asked about his view on the issue.
The Russian leader also called for applying a uniform in schools and colleges.
We should see how our neighbors, European states deal with this issue [wearing hijabs]. And everything will become clear, Putin told a meeting with the Popular Front movement.
Putin received strong backing from the Russian Orthodox Church in his election campaign this year.
He cast himself as a defender of faith when he attacked an anti-government protest in February in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral by the punk band Pussy Riot as an attack on Russians' religious sensitivities.
Faith or Education
But Russian Muslims complain that the hijab ban forces their children to choose between their religion and education.
"The principal phoned me personally and told me to come and take my children home because from now on they will not be allowed to attend lessons in Islamic dress," said Ravil Kaibaliyev, whose daughter Marian was barred from her middle school because of the white headscarf she wore every day.
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one's affiliations.
"To force her (to remove her headscarf) would violate her integrity, said Kaibaliyev, wearing a long beard and white prayer cap.
She would be torn in a conflict between her soul and the others around her, and I think that is wrong.
It is Marian Kaibaliyev's misfortune to live in an area of Russia not recognized as Muslim enough to justify special recognition for Islamic practices.
In Tatarstan, female students freely wear headscarves to school.
In Muslim Chechnya, which borders Stavropol and was the site of two separatist wars, the hijab is part of an accepted dress code.
But in regions where they are in a minority, Russian Muslims complain that their rights count for less than those of their Russian Orthodox counterparts.
The Russian Federation is home to some 23 million Muslims in the north of the Caucasus and southern republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.Islam is Russia's second-largest religion representing roughly 15 percent of its 145 million predominantly Orthodox population.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net