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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Mosque Plans Face Protests

ReutersA women looking out of a window on Queen's Road, in east London. The Masjid-E-Umer mosque looms behind.
PARIS -- With petitions in London, 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. 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 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.

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 center 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.

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 in December to pray in Cordoba Cathedral, originally a mosque.