Poland’s Tatars Feel Uncertain as Anti-Muslim Sentiment Grows

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Source: The New York Times

KRUSZYNIANY, Poland — Though she is a Polish Muslim, Dzenneta Bogdanowicz had never felt threatened living in the small village of Kruszyniany a few miles from the border with Belarus.

That is, until the Paris attacks in November, when Europe was swept up in the migrant crisis and the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party had just won control of Poland’s government. As it happened, on the same day as the attacks, Kruszyniany was celebrating the opening of its first cultural center for Ms. Bogdanowicz’s community, the Lipka Tatars, a tiny Muslim minority with 600-year-old roots in Poland.

Xenophobic, threatening comments poured in to Ms. Bogdanowicz’s email account and cropped up on the comment threads of news articles about the center. “Poland is for Poles,” not for Tatars, one comment said.

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Dzemil Gembicki, caretaker of the Lipka Tatars mosque in Kruszyniany, locked up on Sunday.CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

“Usually,” Ms. Bogdanowicz said, “it’s normal and we feel safe,” but “that day, I did not feel safe.”

These are uncertain times for Poland’s Tatars, a largely overlooked group who now find themselves navigating between their religion and their nationality, as Poland’s new nationalist government resists the European Union’s refugee resettlement mandates and right-wing Christians take aim at Islam generally.

Yet, even as anti-Muslim sentiment builds in Poland and the Lipka Tatars occasionally find themselves the target of hatred, the Tatars themselves largely support the government’s harsh stance against the mainly Muslim migrants who are pouring in to Europe.

About 30,000 Muslims have entered Poland since the fall of Communism. Already outnumbered 10 to one, the 3,000 or so Tatars worry that any further influx of Muslim migrants could threaten their six-century-deep monopoly on Polish Islam, and with it their identity and tradition of stability.

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Inside the 18th-century Lipka Tatar mosque in the village of Kruszyniany. CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

“There is a huge group of Muslims that are not Tatars,” said Dzemil Gembicki, caretaker of the mosque in Kruszyniany. “We want to stick with our own traditions. We are afraid that the huge group of Muslims from other places may cause us to lose the traditions of Polish Tatars.”

Tomasz Miskiewicz, the mufti of Poland and a Lipka Tatar, said that “the situation of Tatar society here in Poland is on the edge.”

“A lot has changed,” he said in an interview in the eastern city of Bialystok.

Lipka Tatars are descended from Turkic people from Central Asia who migrated to the Baltic region in the 14th century. Those who live in what is now Poland have historically been centered in the Podlaskie region, a heavily forested area in the northeast where bison and wolves still roam and where the countryside is peppered with Orthodox and Catholic churches, synagogues and mosques. The religious diversity is striking for a country that is otherwise 94 percent Roman Catholic.

“I am Muslim, I am Tatar, I am Polish,” said Ms. Bogdanowicz, who runs a Tatar restaurant in Kruszyniany. “It cannot be divided.”

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