In a Europe Torn Over Mosques, A City Offers Accommodation

The unfinished Creteil mosque was backed by the city government, but opposed by others.
The unfinished Creteil mosque was backed by the city government, but opposed by others. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
[With Islam now Europe's second-largest religion, the number of mosques and other Muslim places of worship has grown to more than 7,500. In many cities, construction of new mosques has stirred controversy.]
Mosques in Europe
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 9, 2007

CRETEIL, France -- On a recent Friday, 200 Muslim worshipers crowded into a former carpentry workshop here for noon prayers. The men knelt on red carpets in a first-floor hall, the women squeezed into the tiny administrative office upstairs.

Outside the makeshift mosque, Karim Benaissa watched other men lay rows of rainbow-colored carpets on a damp concrete slab. "Even when it's cold, there are more faithful outside than inside," said Benaissa, an Algerian with a tightly trimmed beard who heads the Creteil Union of Muslim Associations. "It makes me ashamed."

But next June, Creteil's Muslims are scheduled to move into a new, $7.4 million mosque with room for more than 2,500 worshipers. The nearly finished building, with its 81-foot minaret, stands on a knoll overlooking the town's picturesque lake, within sight of city hall and the local police station.

The mosque will make Creteil something of an exception in Europe. From London to Cologne to Marseille, governments and residents are fighting the rise of minarets on their skylines in campaigns that underscore cultural, religious and ethnic divides within a continent undergoing its most dramatic demographic change in half a century. Islam is now Europe's second-largest religion after Christianity, and its fastest-growing.

But Creteil's city government is taking a different path, helping Muslims build and finance what will be one of France's largest new mosques.

"We wanted the mosque to be built where everyone could see it," said Mayor Laurent Cathala, who can watch the construction from his 11th-floor office. "We didn't want to hide it. Putting it under the window of the mayor and the police is the best way to eliminate underground sites and extremist ways."

Still, the mosque did not come this far without a struggle. French authorities are attempting to deport its imam; anti-immigrant city council members are protesting the use of public funds for its adjacent cultural center; and some townsfolk say they fear women may no longer be allowed to wear swimsuits at the lake, for fear of offending the modesty of the worshipers. (Not so, says the mayor.)

For European Muslims -- many of whom were born here as second-generation citizens -- new mosques denote recognition and acceptance of their growing numbers and rising status after decades of praying in basements and abandoned buildings. For opponents, the demand for more mosques feeds fears over immigration, security and the erosion of national identity.

In London, proposals for a mega-mosque for 12,000 worshipers near the main park for the 2012 Olympic Games has sparked massive resistance.

In the Tuscan hill town of Colle di Val d'Elsa, Italy, protesters pelted local Muslims this year with sausages and dumped a severed pig's head at the front gate of the construction site of a large, golden-domed mosque. Consumption of pork is forbidden in Islam.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel angered Muslim organizations last week when she told a congress of her Christian Democrat party that "we must take care that mosque cupolas are not built demonstratively higher than church steeples." Battles over new mosques are underway in nearly every major city in Germany, including Cologne, where opponents say the minarets will clash with the spires of the city's famed gothic cathedral.

A Swiss nationalist party is trying to ban minarets on all mosques.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company