KIZLYAR, Russia (Reuters) - A “miracle” baby has brought a kind of mystical hope to people in Russia’s mostly Muslim southern fringe who are increasingly desperate in the face of Islamist violence.
From hunchbacked grandmas to schoolboys, hundreds of pilgrims lined up this week in blazing sunshine to get a glimpse of 9-month-old baby Ali Yakubov, on whose body they say verses from the Koran appear and fade every few days.
Pinkish in color and several centimeters high, the Koranic verse “Be thankful or grateful to Allah” was printed on the infant’s right leg in clearly legible Arabic script this week, religious leaders said. Visiting foreign journalists later saw a single letter after the rest had vanished.
“The fact that this miracle happened here is a signal to us to take the lead and help our brothers and sisters find peace,” said Sagid Murtazaliyev, head of the Kizlyar region about 150 km (95 miles) north of Makhachkala, the sprawling Dagestani capital on the Caspian Sea.
“We must not forget there is a war going on here,” he told Muslim leaders who had invited the press to witness what they unequivocally claim is a sign from God.
Islam in Russia is widely believed to have originated in ethnically rich Dagestan, where 3 million people speak over 30 languages and whose ancient walled city of Derbent claims to be Russia’s oldest city.
A spate of recent suicide bombs and armed attacks on police and security services in Dagestan, Ingushetia and neighboring Chechnya, where Russia has fought two separatist wars, has shattered a few years of relative calm in the North Caucasus.
Local leaders have told President Dmitry Medvedev they are struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency pervading all spheres of society in the north Caucasus — a region named after the Caucasus mountains that divide Russia from strategically important Georgia and Azerbaijan, where oil and gas pipelines flow to the West.
Up to 2,000 pilgrims from Russia’s 20 million Muslim population come daily to see the docile, blue-eyed baby, whose pink brick house has become a shrine.
Vladimir Zakharov, deputy director of the Caucasus Research Centre at the Moscow State University of International Relations, said he was not in a position to judge the veracity of the claims, but that it was clear they were born out of desperation.
“Islam and fear of terrorism now totally dominate the North Caucasus, and they are perhaps using this to escape from a certain reality,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Green satin flags mark the way to the baby’s modest family home in Kizlyar, a small town of lime-colored mosques, cornfields and dirt roads whose dust bellows into the sky.
Dagestan’s omnipresent armed police patrol the house while imams change photos of Yakubov’s arms and legs covered in Arabic script from previous episodes to both jubilation and wails from the bustling crowd.
They say the fact Yakubov’s 27-year-old father Shamil works in the police force — a regular target by militants — is proof of divine intervention.
Makhachkala’s influential mayor Sayid Amirov, who has survived around a dozen attacks on his life since the mid-1990s, interpreted the recent buzz around the baby as a warning.
“What happened here is indeed a miracle, but this should also be a message to not take religion too far,” he told reporters.
Authorities say Islamist extremism is as responsible for the growing violence as widespread poverty, and experts add the insurgency is also recruiting foreign al Qaeda militants who seek an Islamic state in the north Caucasus.
Holding up his right foot where a single Arabic letter remained from the latest episode, Yakubov’s 26-year-old mother Madina said she had no doubt the verses — which first appeared two weeks after birth — were connected to extremism.
“Allah is great and he sent me my miracle child to keep our people safe,” she told Reuters, adjusting her tight purple hijab which crowns a multi-colored kaftan.
Though divine “miracles” are common in Christianity — such as weeping icons and stigmata, bleeding wounds in the hands and feet similar to those of Christ — Islam rarely has them.
Outside her home, pilgrims prayed and gave thanks to Allah.
Supermarket attendant Madina Nikolayeva traveled from Ukraine to see the baby. Behind her, Akhmed Khadzhy had been waiting all day in the queue.
“Allah is watching over Dagestan,” said the pensioner from Khasavyurt near the Chechen border, where clashes with security forces had killed three militants the night before.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall