butyrkaA prison where Soviet-era writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was jailed and a third of inmates are Muslims from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, has become the first in Moscow to open a Muslim prayer room.

Nineteenth century Butyrka prison in central Moscow, which also held Adolf Hitler’s nephew Heinrich among other high-profile prisoners, held its first prayers on Friday, in a hall near a Christian church that has operated since 1989. (Photo: Butyrka prison, Moscow, 29 May 2010/Stanislav Kozlovskiy)

“Religion is the best way for one to improve and heal, and we wanted Muslims to also benefit from this,” Kamil Mannatov from the Russian Council of Muftis told Reuters on Monday.

Mannatov, who heads the Muftis’ department on military and prisoner affairs, said the Council signed an agreement with Russia’s Federal Prison Service in May 2010 to build Muslim prayer halls across the country.

Tensions between ethnic Russians and the country’s 20 million Muslims, a seventh of the population, flared dramatically last month in a string of large-scale ethnic clashes, shocking politicians and ordinary Russians.