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Russian authorities fear that Muslim radicals are grasping for power in the central Russian republic of Tatarstan. Analysts say the radicals have infiltrated the region's Muslim establishment. The goal: to undermine the moderate form of Islam that has co-existed peaceably with Christianity there for centuries. Some worry that Tatarstan could go the way of other predominantly Muslim republics, including Chechnya, where clashes between Islamist insurgents and Russian security forces have killed thousands.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

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COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: This broadcast on Russia One Television showed dramatic footage from the central city of Kazan, flame belching from the wreckage of a bombed car. That bombing in July nearly killed the top Muslim religious leader in Kazan, the mufti of Tatarstan. Earlier that same day, gunmen shot and killed one of the mufti's deputies at his home. The attacks shook Tatarstan, a region along the Volga River in Russia's heartland.

While Russia fought Islamic separatists in areas such as Chechnya, Tatarstan has often been held up as a model of how Muslims and Christians could live together peacefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

FLINTOFF: The republic has nearly 4 million people, about half of whom are Muslim ethnic Tatars. Kazan is the home to Russia's largest mosque completed in 2005. But worshippers also go to daily prayers at dozens of other mosques in the city.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Ethnic Russians make up about 40 percent of the population, and the onion domes of Orthodox churches often stand in sight of Muslim minarets.

Ildus Faisov, the elected mufti who was injured in the car bombing, was seen as a moderate who opposed a radical strain of Islam that some observers say has been taking root in Tatarstan for nearly two decades.

RAIS SULEYMANOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: That's Rais Suleymanov from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. He says that the fundamentalist brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, was brought to Tatarstan by clerics who studied outside Russia, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

SULEYMANOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Suleymanov says that if the car bombing had succeeded in killing the mufti, the post would likely have gone to a cleric he describes as the chief ideologue of Wahhabism in Tatarstan, the imam of the main mosque in Kazan.

SULEYMANOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Suleymanov says that imam abruptly left for London after the bombing and has not yet returned, presumably because he fears he'd be a suspect in the case. He says the religious radicals in Tatarstan are also trying to make common cause with Tatar nationalists.

One nationalist group is the Union of Tatar Youth known as Azatliq. Its leader is a lean 23-year-old named Nail Nabiullin. He and his friends have a very different version of who attacked the mufti.

NAIL NABIULLIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Nabiullin says the attack was carried out by the Russian federal intelligence services as a provocation to destabilize the government of Tatarstan.

NABIULLIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The bombing helps create the impression that Tatarstan is under terrorist attack, he says, clearing the way for the federal government to seize control of the region and its resources, especially oil.

Nationalists are widely regarded as a small sliver of Tatarstan's population, but one that could be dangerous if their cause is united with religious fundamentalism. Meanwhile, the government of Tatarstan has been trying to limit the influence of fundamentalist clerics.

Recent changes in the republic's law on religious freedom now require that Muslim clerics be vetted by religious authorities if they received their degrees outside of Russia.

Rafik Mukhametshin is the rector of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan.

RAFIK MUKHAMETSHIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says that some people may view this as an infringement on the rights of Muslim clerics. But he says the state and society also have rights, including the right to select clerics whose views fit in with the realities of a multi-faith community.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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