Tempers Flare in German Mosque Dispute

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 4, 2007; 12:48 PM

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 holds only 600 people.

Yet plans to replace the flat-roofed storefront mosque with a new house of worship, complete with dome and two 177-foot-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 mosques in Europe has rarely happened without much hand-wringing. In France, the scene of riots in largely Muslim and African suburbs in 2005, and Britain, which has just been threatened by a new wave of Islamic terror plots, 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 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 residents against the disputed mosque. It would be located in an 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 on Deutschlandfunk radio that the construction of the mosque would make him "feel unwell" and the "immigration of Muslims has created a breach in our German, European culture."

Meisner's words count a lot in Cologne, which is one of Germany's most devoutly Roman Catholic cities. It is famous for its 750-year-old cathedral with its two 515-foot landmark steeples and 12 Romanesque churches.

Mehmet Yildirim, director of a Turkish-Islamic umbrella group for 700 German mosques called Ditib, called the objections "racist and insulting."

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