MOSCOW — A self-proclaimed prophet had a vision from God: He would build an Islamic caliphate under the earth.
The digging began about a decade ago and 70 followers soon moved into an eight-level subterranean honeycomb of cramped cells with no light, heat or ventilation.
Children were born. They, too, lived in the cold underground cells for many years – until authorities raided the compound last week and freed the 27 sons and daughters of the sect.
Ages 1 to 17, the children rarely saw the light of day and had never left the property, attended school or been seen by a doctor, officials said Wednesday. Their parents – sect members who call themselves "muammin," from the Arabic for "believers" – were charged with child abuse.
The sect's 83-year-old founder, Faizrakhman Satarov, who declared himself a prophet in contradiction to the principles of Islam, was charged with negligence, said Irina Petrova, deputy prosecutor in the provincial capital of Kazan.
The children were discovered when police searched the sect grounds as part of an investigation into the recent killing of a top Tatarstan Muslim cleric, an attack local officials blame on radical Islamist groups that have mushroomed in the oil-rich, Volga River province of Tatarstan.
Satarov ordered his followers to live in cells they dug under a three-story brick house topped by a small minaret with a tin crescent moon. Only a few sect members were allowed to leave the premises to work as traders at a local market, Russian media reported.
The children were examined at hospitals and will temporarily live in an orphanage, pediatrician Tatyana Moroz said. "They looked nourished but dirty, so we had to wash them," she said in televised remarks.
Their parents expressed concern about the children's medical treatment.
Doctors "can do anything to them," Fana Sayanova, a woman wearing a long white dress with her face veiled, told local television.
The decrepit house on a 700-square-meter (7,530-square-foot) plot of land was built illegally and will be demolished, Tatarstan police said.
"They will come with bulldozers and guns, but they will have to demolish this house over our dead bodies!" sect member Gumer Ganiyev said on the Vesti television channel. The ailing Satarov appointed Ganiyev as his deputy prophet, according to local media.
Satarov had followers in several other cities in Tatarstan and other Volga River provinces, local media reported.
In a 2008 interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, Satarov said that he fell out with other clerics and authorities in the Communist era, when he said the KGB sent him to Muslim nations with stories about religious freedom in the officially atheist Soviet Union. Government-approved Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish clerics routinely traveled abroad on Soviet publicity trips.
"That's how I became Satan's servant, a traitor," the white-bearded and turbaned man was quoted as saying. "When I understood that, I repented and started preaching."
Muslim leaders in Tatarstan said Satarov's views contradict Islamic doctrine.
"Islam postulates that there are no other prophets after Mohammad," Kazan-based theologian Rais Suleimanov told the Gazeta.ru online publication Tuesday.
Police raided Satarov's house last Friday as part of an investigation into the killing of Valiulla Yakupov, Tatarstan's deputy chief mufti, who was gunned down in mid-July as he left his house in Kazan. Minutes later, chief mufti Ildus Faizov was wounded in the legs when a bomb blast ripped through his car in Kazan.
Both clerics were known as critics of radical Islamist groups that advocate a strict and puritanical version of Islam known as Salafism.
Prosecutors have named two suspects in Yakupov's killing who remain at large and arrested five others in the case.