European mosque plans face protests

PARIS Sun Aug 5, 2007 8:06pm EDT

A Muslim living in Athens prays in a small apartment used as a makeshift mosque in this file photo from March 2, 2006. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

A Muslim living in Athens prays in a small apartment used as a makeshift mosque in this file photo from March 2, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis

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PARIS (Reuters) - Petitions in London, protests in Cologne, a court case in Marseille and a violent clash in Berlin -- Muslims in Europe are meeting resistance to plans for mosques that befit Islam's status as the continent's second religion.

Across Europe, Muslims who have long prayed in garages and old factories now face skepticism and concern for wanting to build stately mosques to give proud testimony to the faith and solidity of their Islamic communities.

Some critics reject them as signs of "Islamisation". Others say minarets would scar their city's skyline. Given the role some mosques have played as centers for terrorists, others see Muslim houses of worship as potential security threats.

"The increasingly visible presence of Muslims has prompted questions in all European societies," Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe's leading Muslim spokesmen, argued when far-right groups proposed this year to ban minarets in his native Switzerland.

The issue hit the headlines in Britain in late July when a petition against a "mega-mosque" next to the 2012 London Olympics site was posted on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Web site. It attracted more than 275,000 signatures before it was taken down.

In Germany last month, there were anti-mosque protests in Cologne and Berlin and a local council voted against one in Munich. A French far-right group vowed to sue the city of Marseille for a second time for helping build a "grand mosque".

Bekir Alboga of the Turkish Islamic Union (DITIB) in Cologne said critics who see these new mosques as signs of separatism or of an Islamic colonization of Europe miss the point.

"The desire of Muslims to build a house of worship means they want to feel at home and live in harmony with their religion in a society they have accepted as theirs," he said.

HIGH SYMBOLIC VALUE

Major mosque projects need years of planning. In the process, Muslim leaders and city officials get to know each other better and most mayors end up supporting them as projects that help integrate the new minority.

But neighborhood groups and far-right activists, sometimes joined by Christian leaders, have recently spoken out against them as it became clear they would soon have a mosque next door.

The tensions arise because houses of worship have a high symbolic value in Europe, where the cathedral or church is usually the centre of town, said Riem Spielhaus, an expert on Islam in Europe at Berlin's Humboldt University.

"A mosque symbolically retraces the changes that have been made in society," she said. "It reopens the debate on whether these changes are good, whether Muslims should live here, even whether Islam is a good religion."

But this is rarely discussed openly, she said. Disputes about mosques tend to focus on other issues, such as terrorism, the role of women or the availability of parking spots.

Critics of the London mosque, led by a local councilor from a Christian group, argue a large mosque with room for 12,000 worshipers will turn the integrated neighborhood into a "one-faith zone" driving out followers of other faiths.

They also charge that Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), the Islamic missionaries building the mosque, are a security risk because "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid and two suicide bombers in the July 2005 London attacks followed the publicity-shy movement.

In Cologne, DITIB's plan for a modern Ottoman-style mosque has met charges it will be too big for a city housing one of the most imposing Gothic cathedrals in the Christian world.

"I have a queasy feeling," Catholic Cardinal Joachim Meisner said. "A mosque would give the city a different panorama. Given our history, there is a shock that Muslim immigration has brought a cultural rupture in our German and European culture."

A mosque project in Pankow, an eastern Berlin area with few Muslims, sparked violent clashes last month between supporters and opponents. Neo-Nazi groups have joined the protests and a truck was torched at the construction site in March.

"EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT..."

France, whose five million-strong Muslim minority is Europe's largest, has a longer history of mosques in its cities and many mayors provide land at low cost for them.

A far-right political party, the National Republican Movement (MNR), unexpectedly won two court cases this year against these subsidies in the Paris suburb of Montreuil and in Marseille, where a quarter of the population is Muslim.

Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin of Marseille was so set on seeing a "cathedral mosque" built after decades of debate that he quickly got approval for a new contract at slightly higher rates.

"Everyone has a right to a significant house of worship," he told the city council. Most Marseille Muslims now pray in neighborhood mosques too small for their congregations.

In Switzerland, two right-wing parties have launched a petition for a referendum to ban minarets on mosques there.

Italy's anti-immigration Northern League called last month for all mosques there to be closed for security checks. In December 2006, protesters left a severed pig's head outside a mosque being built in the Tuscan town of Colle di Val d'Elsa.

Concern about Islam has deep roots in some countries. In Greece, which lived for four centuries under Ottoman Turkish rule, Muslims only got their first purpose-built mosque in Athens in June. Plans for a larger one are still on hold.

In Spain, a bastion of Islamic culture for eight centuries until 1492, Catholic leaders nervously turned down a request from Muslims to pray in Cordoba Cathedral, originally a mosque.

A local Muslim group wants to build a half-scale replica of the mosque for its own use, but has not yet submitted its plan.

(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann in Athens, Jason Webb in Madrid and Deepa Babington in Rome)

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