At least a dozen Ukrainian Muslim soldiers celebrated Eid al-Adha by prayer and worship at Medina Mosque, which is last remaining operational mosque in the region of Donbas. The prayer session was led by former Mufti Sheikh Said Ismahilov, who is a prominent spiritual leader in the country.

Ismayilov, 43, in his sermon following traditional Eid prayers, told the congregation that this year’s Eid Al-adha had a special significance due to the intense period of war and fighting. He requested soldiers to think about Muslims surviving the war in occupied territories, where a great deal of people have witnessed their homes being destroyed and local mosques demolished.

The mosque in Konstantinovka is used to cater to a local Muslim population of several hundred people. It is now the only remaining operational mosque in Ukrainian-controlled territory in the Donbas. Ismahilov revealed to the AP that there are up to 30 mosques in the area in total but that most are now under the control of the Russians.

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Mufti-turned-fighter Sheikh Said Ismahilov stands in Medina Mosque, Kostiantynivka in eastern Ukraine [Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press]

Muslims make up a small minority of almost one percent of the population in Ukraine which is mostly an Orthodox Christian country.

In Eastern Ukraine there is a substantial community of Muslims due to waves of economic migration in a region which was industrialized over the years. Muslims emigrated to the area of Donbas to work in the factories and mines. There is also a large Muslim population in Crimea, which is home to the Crimean Tatars. In 2014 it was illegally annexed by Russia when the conflict first began. During this time it forced much of the Muslim population from Crimea and Donbas to relocate to other areas of the country where they created new Islamic centres and became a part of long-established Tatar communities, in collaboration with Arabs, Turks, and Ukrainian converts.

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However, since Russia’s invasion in 2022, many Muslims across the regions have been forced to flee again. However, some Muslims are choosing to fight and stay in the war. Mufti Said Ismahilov is among them, and halted his religious duties to fight the war in his country.   Ismahilov’s difficult decision came after threats of an imminent attack grew stronger by the end of last year. He commenced his military training with a local territorial defense battalion, after serving as an Islamic spiritual leader for 13 years.

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Ismahilov, who was born and raised in the east of Ukraine, had previously fled Russia back in 2014, when separatists backed by Moscow took control of his city.

“This time I made the decision that I would not run away, I would not flee, but I would fight” he revealed in an interview with The Associated Press in Konstantinovka, a town near to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, where a battle for control of the territory is growing day by day.

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