The recent headlines in the Russian press were sensational: Members of a reclusive Islamic sect were said to be living in an isolated compound with underground burrows, some as deep as eight stories underground, without electricity or heat.
Reporters have descended on the compound, on the outskirts of the city of Kazan, but have had only limited access and have not been able to confirm all the allegations by Russian officials.
Meanwhile, authorities are now trying to decide what to do with the estimated 70 members of the sect, who call themselves muammin, Arabic for "believers."
Child-welfare authorities took custody of about 20 children, saying they had been denied medical attention and schooling, and that some had never seen daylight.
The members of the sect are followers of an 83-year-old Islamic cleric named Faizrakhman Satarov, who says he had a revelation from God that true Muslims must separate themselves from society.
Satarov declared his compound in Kazan — the capital of Tatarstan, a majority Muslim region about 500 miles east of Moscow — an independent Islamic state.
For nearly two decades, his followers quietly built houses and dug additional living quarters underneath them.
A Neighbor Goes Inside The Compound
Satarov's neighbors say they were aware that the group had unusual beliefs, but didn't view them as a problem.
Ilya Vladimirov works at a small car-repair service next door to the compound. He says the sect members seemed like normal people, though the neighbors couldn't see what went on inside their walls.
Vladimirov says he was one of several neighbors who were asked by police to go inside the compound to act as witnesses to the police search.
He says he personally saw two levels of underground dwellings, but that police told him that one house had basements four levels deep. He also says the children lived in unsanitary conditions, in rooms that were little more than cells.
From outside the high-walled compound, there's little to be seen but a brick house with a wooden minaret, topped by an Islamic crescent moon.
On a recent day, a middle-aged man with a long beard and a green turban greets reporters and briefly unlatches the gate, but refuses to be interviewed.
"Until they give back the children, we won't talk to anybody," says the man, who identifies himself as Gumar Ganiyev. He resolutely chains up the gate and walks away.
The group's children are now in an orphanage, where doctors say they are generally in good health.
Prosecutors have said they intend to charge group members with child neglect, but it's not clear how long that process might take.
Sect Members Defiant
Razif Garifullin is a sect member who stopped to talk as he made his way back to the compound. At 70, he's a lean man with a white beard and mild-looking blue eyes, but his words are sharp.
"We are ready to die here, for Allah and the true Islam," he says, adding that sect members will resist if the authorities try to destroy the compound.
Rafik Mukhametshin, the headmaster of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan, has studied the sect for more than 10 years.
Mukhametshin says he thinks the authorities hesitated to interfere out of "political correctness," because they feared that they would be perceived as hindering religious freedom.
Now, he says, the community is facing the need to balance religious freedom with social values such as education and medical care. And, he says, the decisions won't be easy.
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