COLOGNE, Germany: On Muslim holidays, hundreds of faithful hoping to pray at the city’s Ditib Mosque are forced to spread their prayer rugs in a nearby parking lot and follow the service on loudspeakers. The mosque only holds 600 people.
Yet plans to replace the flat-roofed storefront mosque with a new house of worship, complete with dome and two 54-meter-tall (177-feet-tall) minarets, have triggered an angry response from right-wing groups and, most recently, Cologne’s Roman Catholic Archbishop.
Mehmet Orman, 43, a Turkish immigrant who prays every night at Ditib Mosque — ignoring its broken windows and worn-out prayer rugs — hopes construction can begin, as scheduled, by the end of the year.
“There are 2.7 million Turks in Germany — of course we need a big, representative mosque in this country,” Orman said.
Construction of traditional mosques in Germany and elsewhere in Europe has rarely happened without much hand-wringing. In France, the scene of riots in largely Muslim suburbs in 2005, and Britain, which has just been hit by a new wave of Islamic terror, there have also been protests against the building of new mosques.
But Cologne has such a prominent Catholic heritage that Pope Benedict XVI has dubbed it the “Rome of the north” — and the project has stirred deep passions.
Last month, dozens of right-wing extremists from all over Germany, Austria and Belgium demonstrated against construction of the Cologne mosque, saying the building would “fortify the Muslims’ claim to power in Christian Europe,” as the demonstration’s organizer, Manfred Rouhs, put it.
Rouhs heads the right-wing Pro Cologne movement which has collected 18,000 signatures from local citizens against the disputed mosque which would be located in a vivid immigrant neighborhood with Turkish tea houses, kebab restaurants and gold jewelry stores.
It’s not just the extremist fringe that is upset, however — opposition to the mosque has also built up in the center of the German society.
Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, said in a widely publicized interview in Deutschlandfunk radio that the construction of the mosque would make him “feel unwell” and that the “immigration of Muslims has created a breach in our German, European culture.”
Mehmet Yildirim, the director of Ditib — a Turkish-Islamic umbrella group for 700 German mosques — rejected objections by the mosque’s opponents as “racist and insulting.”
“We shouldn’t have to justify ourselves that we need a house for prayer in Germany,” Yildirim, 56, said in an interview at Ditib’s headquarters in Cologne.
Yet Meisner’s words count a lot in Cologne, which is one of Germany’s most devoutly Roman Catholic cities and world-famous for its 750-year-old cathedral with its two 157-meter (515-feet) landmark steeples and twelve Romanesque churches.
The dispute further escalated when Ralph Giordano, a prominent German writer and Jewish Holocaust survivor, also demanded that the mosque not be built and declared the integration of Muslim immigrants in Germany a failure because Germans and Muslim immigrants were living in parallel societies.
“I don’t want to meet burqas and chadors on German streets nor do I want to hear the call of the muezzin from towering minarets,” Giordano, 84, wrote in a commentary for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily.
In reaction, Giordano said he has received six phoned death threats from Turks.
With a size of 4,500 square meters (48,440 square feet), the future mosque would be one of the biggest in Germany. It would have space for up to 2,000 worshippers, house an Islamic library, facilities for cultural events and several stores. The construction would cost between €15 to €30 million ($20 to $40 million) and mostly be financed by private donations.
Approximately 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, 70 percent of them originally from Turkey.
While the city has not yet issued the final building permit, many city council members are in favor of the disputed edifice, said Marlis Bredehorst, Cologne’s official for integration.
“It is important that the Muslims here get dignified houses of prayer — they are part of our society,” Bredehorst said. “Two-hundred years ago, the Protestants had to pray secretively in Catholic Cologne — that is something we can’t imagine anymore today.”
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