COLUMN ONE : Faith Fuels Chechen Fighters : Islam has inspired young soldiers and elderly villagers. Russia scrambles to keep situation from triggering religious strife in its heartland or trouble with its Muslim neighbors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under soaring aluminum domes that make the mosque in this village visible for miles, hundreds of Chechens kneel for Friday prayer. A murmur rises, then parts into distinct tones of a harmonic Arabic chant: "There is no God except Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet!"

Perhaps because it is Ramadan, Islam's holy month, perhaps because Chechnya is at war, young men who do not usually frequent the mosque are here, on rows of colorful prayer rugs. Today, they make up about one-fifth of the worshipers.

"We are faced with the Russian invader," Yaragi-Khadji Chinkhoyev, the white-bearded prayer leader, counsels them in his weekly sermon. "I do not send you to fight. You must make a voluntary choice. But when Russians shoot at Muslims, you have a right to shoot back."

That cautious advice from the imam, one of Katr-Yurt's most respected elders, is echoed in mosques across the tiny, largely Muslim republic in a chorus of Koranic justification, and even inspiration, for the Chechens' 2-month-old war of resistance against Moscow.

While Chechnya's imams and Muslim president have stopped short of calling the society to an openly declared jihad, or holy war, their rhetoric, prayers, advice and interpretation of events have given religious overtones to what began as a fight for political independence.

"You come to the mosque and, if you have doubts or fears about the war and how to conduct it, the imam will inspire you, and you will go into battle with an open heart," said Aslam Galayev, a 19-year-old student staffing an armed Chechen checkpoint at the edge of Katr-Yurt.

Assured by spiritual leaders of direct passage to paradise if they die in battle, Galayev and hundreds of other young Chechens have launched their own personal jihads against the Russian army. They pray daily, wave green flags bearing the Islamic crescent moon and star, and cry "Allah is great!" after each battle.

Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev denounces the "satanic methods of Russia" against his republic of about 1.2 million people. His irregular army, which is losing ground, entertains offers of armed support from Islamic fundamentalists from the Middle East and Central Asia, while he hints at terrorist strikes in Russian cities.

All this alarms the Kremlin, which rules over a Russia that includes 60 million Orthodox Christians and 18 million Muslims. Both religions have emerged from seven decades of communism with renewed fervor and mutual wariness but, until this war, little friction between them.

Moscow also has historically complex relations with Turkey, Iran and other Islamic nations to the south. It courts most as neighbors, yet its policies are being pushed rightward by ultranationalists like Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, who asserts that Russia must "save the world from the spread of Islam, from the spread of terrorism."

Fearing a thrust of religious strife into the Russian heartland, Moscow is scrambling to assure Islamic statesmen--at home in Muslim-populated regions and abroad--that this is no holy war, no revival of the "clash of civilizations" that has bloodied the Caucasus Mountains off and on for centuries.

"There is no relation between Dudayev's gang and Islam," Russian lawmaker Ramazan Abdulatipov, a Muslim, told reporters in Cairo.

Indeed, a purely political explanation of the Chechen war could make sense. It was Dudayev's bid for independence, Chechnya's illegal army and its criminal mafia that prompted President Boris N. Yeltsin to launch the Russian attack Dec. 11. And it was the Chechens' warrior culture, tradition of blood revenge and lingering trauma of deportation by Stalin that prompted them to fight back so fiercely.

But the fear and fervor of religion were there from the start. Chechens preparing to defend Grozny danced the zikr outside Dudayev's palace. Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev declared Islamic fundamentalism to be Moscow's "No. 1 foreign adversary."

And in interviews over the past month, Chechen combatants and community leaders said their Islamic faith is a growing pillar of a resistance movement now struggling more for survival than independence.

"At the start, no one connected Chechnya's choice of independence with religion," said Salyekh U. Khamkhoyev, rector of the Imam Ash-Shafii Islamic Institute in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. "But as the war continues, political interests are pushed to the background, and voices are raised to the effect that what is being destroyed is not Chechnya politically but Muslims as a people."

Chechens have been Sunni Muslims since the 17th Century but are set apart by Sufism, a mystical brand of saint worship. Among their rituals is the zikr , a circle dance in which entranced worshipers jump, jerk their heads and arms while praying for purification, then break down weeping or pass out.

The discipline of underground Sufi orders, many scholars say, reinforced the clan structure and helped the society endure 13 years of exile in Soviet Siberia and Kazakhstan until the Chechens were allowed to come home in 1957.

"Without a religion to sustain it, a nation cannot survive," said Suleyman Basayev, 61, who lived through that ordeal and produced two devout Muslim sons who are now at war with the Russians.

Since the final years of the Soviet Union, Chechens have brought Islam above ground, building or reclaiming more than 1,000 mosques, two Koranic institutes and dozens of medresehs , or religious schools. Hundreds of young Chechens have gone abroad to study Islam.

Aware of Islam's emerging power, Dudayev took the oath as president in 1991 with one hand on the Koran, swearing allegiance to a secular constitution of independence from Moscow. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1992.

Chechens wonder how sincere a Muslim this career Soviet air force general can be. He is married to a Jew from Estonia and once answered an interviewer's quiz by saying Muslims are supposed to pray three times a day. Told the correct answer is five, he shrugged: "Oh well, the more the merrier."

Still, Dudayev rallied most of the clergy to his side by embracing Islam as his popularity waned and his feud with Russia ripened into war.

In the weeks before the Russian assault, he asked the Chechen Parliament to adopt the Sharia, the canonical law of Islam. And he invoked the Koran to demand the heads of Russian soldiers caught aiding an opposition uprising.

With that religious backdrop, the war has produced the venom of a Christian-Muslim feud on the ground as Russian soldiers reach beyond this world to explain the Chechens' stunning early successes.

"We had terrible fears about their religion," said Sergei Bozhko, a 19-year-old Russian conscript who deserted in Chechnya. "The officers tried to bring it home to us . . . that Chechens were like Arab terrorists portrayed in Hollywood movies, only worse--uneducated Muslim fanatics, blinded by Islam . . . who would gouge our eyes out and rip our bowels open."

Other Russian soldiers recall battlefield visions of Chechen "white riders" with flowing white beards and saintly powers, astride horses and facing down their tanks. According to one account, the riders obscured the Russians' viewfinders with "magic arrows." In another, the tanks sank slowly in quicksand.

Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin told a group of soldiers' mothers there could be no truce to recover the dead because the Chechens "are such people that you can talk to them only in the language of guns. They are Muslims, you know."

As such slurs filter back, Chechen fighters view themselves increasingly as defenders of their maligned faith and beneficiaries of divine intervention. Many accept it as truth--the imams say so--that Russia is out to destroy Islam.

"All our troubles, the exile and now the war, are because of Islam, because people accept Islam," Nasukha Akmatov, 82, founder of Chechnya's first post-Soviet Koranic institute, says flatly. "They don't like Islam. That's why they started this war."

Russian troops have reinforced this view by seizing the Koran from Chechen war prisoners. Chechens also remember that Russia sided with the Christian majority in North Ossetia, a neighboring republic in the Caucasus, in a bloody 1992 campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that drove out 60,000 Muslims and destroyed 13 mosques.

The authority of Chechen imams, who are elected by their villages, is enhanced by the prescience of a 200-year-old forecast they handed down from Chechen saints: that the breakup of Russia would begin with a small state. With Dudayev now in hiding and increasingly marginal to the resistance, "mosques are the only places where people really trust their leaders," said Khamkhoyev, the rector in Ingushetia.

And the hand of Allah is seen in scores of Chechen battlefield testimonies that mirror the Russians' awe.

"I was in a trench, and Russian troops closed in," said Magomet Sali Osdoyev, a 32-year-old shepherd. "I remembered Allah and prayed silently. I felt as if Allah took me by the hand and led me out. All of a sudden, they stopped shooting, as if Allah had stopped their fire."

"Without a military structure to speak of, without any antiaircraft defenses, we have resisted the powerful Russian army," said Musa Merzhuyev, a military aide to Dudayev. "People see Allah's will. Personally, I can think of no other explanation."

In fact, Russian warplanes have killed thousands of Chechens and ethnic Russians in indiscriminate bombings, destroying mosques and Christian churches alike, bloodying Christmas and Ramadan, ignoring appeals by priests and imams to stop.

Still, villagers in Katr-Yurt took it as a deliberate sacrilege when a Russian bomb meant for a bridge shattered 12 windows in their main mosque and brought down the roof of a smaller one under construction. "My hair turned gray from humiliation," said Sultan Tovsultanov, a 42-year-old tinsmith.

About 30 worshipers gathered and repaired the main mosque in a day, using one of the double panes from each of 12 unbroken windows. No one was hurt in the bombing, but the talk was of war closing in. The village of several thousand people had already sent 60 sons to fight in Grozny, the Chechen capital 22 miles to the northeast; 19 have been killed.

"Our young people see their friends die, and they realize, maybe for the first time, that their own death is near," the 65-year-old imam said. "They fill our mosque. War pushes them nearer to Allah."

Indeed, fighters who never prayed before say they now stop in battle to pray in shifts. "As a child, I ignored my faith," said Alik Saidov, a 35-year-old Chechen policeman who joined the army. "Now, I feel a religious change with my very skin."

Not all Chechens sympathize with the resistance, and some who do are reluctant to take up arms. After listening to a debate in his mosque, the imam of Urus-Martan advocated fighting only if attacked--a middle-ground view commonly held in the clergy that does not seem to discourage active combat.

A more militant imam, in the village of Goity, "spiritually advised us how to form an armed group," one follower said. But he also urged humane treatment of enemy prisoners--a practice that, contrary to Russian fears, is widely observed on the Chechen side.

Even if the Russians pacify Grozny, it is unlikely they will control the entire republic--especially the mountain villages. Will those independent regions accept the theocratic state that Islamic leaders fought to establish here in the 19th Century, before Russian troops defeated them?

Religious leaders doubt it. Chechnya is too Russified, too awash in vodka. Many of its women are financially independent, and social traditions of openness and hospitality run counter to any fundamentalist notion of excluding nonbelievers.

"If Yeltsin were to announce today, 'OK, you Chechens and Ingush, create your own Islamic state,' it could be no more Islamic than Russia is democratic," Khamkhoyev said.

The scenario could change, however, if massive numbers of Islamic holy warriors came in from the outside, religious leaders agree. Dudayev's regime has won only token rhetorical support from Islamic nations--they don't want conflict with the Kremlin--but reportedly made contact with fundamentalist guerrillas in Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran.

In a December interview with The Times, Dudayev defended possible intervention by foreign fighters on moral grounds but more recently urged them "to struggle against Moscow in your own place," apparently to avoid discouraging U.S. and European pressure on Russia to halt the offensive.

Perhaps to explain their setbacks, Russian commanders have claimed, without proof, that as many as 3,000 such outside guerrillas are already in Chechnya. Reporters have not seen them, and Chechen Foreign Minister Shamseddin Yusef insists they are barred. "Once you let them in, it's hard to get them out," he said.

One does run across resistance fighters from Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and other neighboring Russian republics in the Caucasus. And it is clear from interviews that they, like the Chechens, are awakening to Islam and taking cues from their imams.

It is in the Caucasus and the republics along the Volga River to the north that most Russian Muslims live. Muslim leaders there, alarmed that the Chechen war and separatist fervor may spread, have taken the lead in calling for a cease-fire.

"You don't have to look far to see where this can lead," said Farid Asadullin, a member of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate in Moscow. "When Yugoslavia started breaking up, the process was considered purely ethnic, connected with the growing nationalism of Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. Nobody was talking about religion."

Now, he added, "religion is a galvanizing nucleus that separates 'ours' from 'theirs.' Knowing this scenario (the war in the Balkans), our worst fear is that it will be reproduced massively on Russian soil."

Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau and staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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