“I have long been interested in the Muslim world,” said one of them, the Rev. Benoit Ente, who spent two years as an aid worker in heavily Muslim Chad. “I was very interested to know what this mosque is like.”
After deciphering the Arabic-script Koranic verses decorating a frieze around the hall, Binjalloun pointed out that the mosque contains no images of God or Muhammad, in accordance with Islamic strictures. But, he added, it also contains none of the arcades common to Moroccan or other Middle Eastern architecture, because Portoghesi’s design was conceived for construction in Europe for European Muslims.
“From the beginning, we wanted a project for Strasbourg and for Europe,” Binjalloun told the visitors.
As for the calendar, he said, it is based on lunar calculations, which explains why a Muslim year is different from the Gregorian calendar used by Christians and why Ramadan begins on a different date every year.
A ‘ tortuous’ process
Although a symbol of ecumenism now, the Great Mosque of Strasbourg also has been an example of the tensions surrounding France’s growing Muslim minority. Under discussion since the late 1970s, it almost was not built. By the time it was, the project had been truncated.
“The history of the Great Mosque was long, difficult and tortuous,” said Olivier Bitz, deputy mayor in charge of religious affairs in the Socialist-run Strasbourg City Council, headed by Mayor Roland Ries.
After 15 years of fruitless meetings and conferences between Muslim figures and city officials, then-Mayor Catherine Trautmann in 1993 decided that the mosque would be built on a grand scale and that the city would help finance it. Her decision, a departure strongly opposed by conservatives, was a major campaign issue in the 1995 elections that brought her Socialist majority to power for another term.
By 2000, the decision was enshrined in law, the city-owned plot was leased under favorable conditions and contracts were negotiated with Portoghesi. But a conservative coalition captured City Hall in 2001 under then-Mayor Fabienne Keller and, according to Bitz, set out to bury the mosque.
“The entire project was put into question,” he said.
Prodded by far-right National Front objections, Keller’s mainstream right council nixed plans for a minaret — the distinctive architectural spire common to mosques — a cultural center and a tea salon. It shrank plans for the prayer hall by a third, forbade an underground parking lot and banned donations by foreign countries or sermons in Arabic.
At the same time, dissension erupted among Muslims pushing the project. Those from Algeria and Tunisia complained that immigrants from Morocco, the largest segment of the Muslim community, were monopolizing decisions on the strength of promises of financial aid from the Moroccan government.
The project in theory started in 2004; Keller laid the first stone. But it was mired in discord and went nowhere. Construction got off the ground only with the arrival in 2008 of another Socialist administration, this one under Ries.
With his blessing, fundraising resumed, with the price tag having risen to just under $14 million. Twenty-six percent came from City Hall and the regional council, 33 percent from local donations and 37 percent from Morocco. The rest came from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Now that the mosque is finished, and Ries has erased the restrictions, Aalla said, Portoghesi has been asked to design an extension. It will embrace the originally planned cultural center, the tea salon and perhaps even a minaret. Unless, Bitz cautioned, Ries is voted out before they can be completed.