MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to a bizarre and troubling story out of Russia where authorities have taken custody of 20 children from an obscure Islamic sect. About 70 members of the sect have been living without electricity or heat in rooms dug deep under the ground. They were found earlier this month on the outskirts of the city of Kazan. Officials say the children had been denied medical attention and schooling, and that some had never seen daylight.
NPR's Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff has the story.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The headlines were sensational: sect members said to be living in subterranean burrows, some as deep as eight stories underground. They were followers of an 83-year-old Muslim cleric named Faizrakhman Satarov, who says he had a revelation from God that true Muslims must separate themselves from society. Satarov declared his compound an independent Islamic state. For nearly two decades, his followers quietly built houses and dug additional living quarters underneath them.
Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, a majority Muslim region about 500 miles east of Moscow. Satarov's neighbors say they were aware that the group had unusual beliefs but didn't view them as a problem.
Ilya Vladimirov works at a small car repair service next door to the compound.
ILYA VLADIMIROV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He says the sect members seemed like normal people, though the neighbors couldn't see what went on inside their walls.
But Vladimirov says he was one of several neighbors who were asked by police to go inside the compound to act as witnesses to the police search. He says the children lived in unsanitary conditions in rooms that were little more than cells.
From outside the high-walled compound, there's little to be seen but a brick house with a wooden minaret, topped by an Islamic crescent moon.
A middle-aged man with a long beard and a green turban briefly unlatches the gate, but refuses to talk with reporters.
GUMAR GANIYEV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: The man, Gumar Ganiyev, says until they give back the children, we won't talk to anybody.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please, you know, this is the chance to say your side.
GANIYEV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He resolutely chains up the gate and walks away.
The group's children are now in an orphanage where doctors say they're generally in good health. Prosecutors have said they intend to charge group members with child neglect, but it's not clear how long that process might take.
Razif Garifullin is a sect member on his way back to the compound. At 70, he's a lean man with a white beard and mild-looking blue eyes. But his words are sharp as he speaks through an interpreter.
RAZIF GARIFULLIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He says sect members will resist if the authorities try to destroy the compound.
Rafik Mukhametshin has studied the sect for more than 10 years. He's the headmaster of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan.
RAFIK MUKHAMETSHIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Mukhametshin says he thinks the authorities hesitated to interfere because they feared that they'd be perceived as hindering religious freedom. Now, he says, the community is facing the need to balance religious freedom with social values such as education and medical care. And he says the decisions won't be easy.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News.