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A Community Divided

DW staff (jp)June 3, 2007

Germany's Turkish Islamic Union is housed in a dilapidated factory in the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne. Controversially, the building is now set to be revamped as a mosque. One critic has even received death threats.

Cologne still has room for a minaretImage: dpa

The site occupies the corner of two major roads in the city of Cologne. On one side is a 12-storey high building housing an estate agency, on the other are the Deutsche Telekom offices.

Nestling next to a petrol station is a run-down former factory -- gray, crumbling and architecturally unassuming.

Since 1984, this has been the spiritual home of some 3 million Muslims in Germany.

But they're finally about to get an upgrade. The Turkish Islamic Union (DITIB) is planning to use its own money to renovate the headquarters and build a fully fledged mosque complete with two minarets, as well as a cultural center for the community.

Long overdue

Türken in Deutschland Frauen mit Kopftuch
Does Germany make life hard for its Muslims?Image: AP

Predictably, the plan has divided the city of Cologne. Opposition is rife, but others have leapt to DITIB's defense, saying it is high time that Cologne's 120,000 Muslims had a proper place of worship.

"At the moment the situation is terrible," said Bekir Alboga, who is in charge of inter-religious and inter-cultural co-operation at DITIB. "People pray out here in the car park, even in winter when it's cold, snowing or raining, because it is a very small prayer room. And where are Muslims meant to pray, while Christians or Jews are in their pretty, representative houses of God? Should our Muslims really pray on tarmac in the blazing summer sun?"

Right-wing resistance

But not everyone in Cologne shares Alboga's point of view, not least the radical right-wing citizens' movement Pro-Cologne. Members of this group point out that there are some 45 mosques in Cologne already -- based mainly in abandoned factories, warehouses and shops -- and that these fulfill the Muslim community's needs.

The group's leader, Manfred Rouhs, said that a large Muslim cultural center will serve to encourage a separated Turkish society rather than an integrated one.

"These people only speak Turkish," he said. "They see no need to learn German. We think that's the wrong way, and because of this we are critical of the project."

He said he feels there is a key difference between Muslims gathering for worship in mosques and Jews in synagogues in Germany.

"Jews speak German, and they've lived in Germany since several hundred years," Rouhs said. "Because of this it's no problem."

Debate in Jewish community

Synagoge in der Oranienburger Straße Berlin
Berlin's synagogue in Oranienburger Straße

In fact, the issue has also split the Jewish community.

Jewish writer and journalist Ralph Giordano has come in for angry criticism within the community for taking a stance against the mosque on the grounds that it belies what he calls Germany's "failed integration."

What Germany has seen instead is a "clash of two completely different cultures," he said in the Stuttgarter Nachrichten.

"The question is whether these cultures can ever be reconciled," he said.

His comments have drawn death threats from Muslims, said Giordano.

"What kind of a state are we in that I can face a fatwa in Germany?" he asked.

His colleague Rafael Seligmann told the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung that Giordano's position harks back to his childhood.

"His persecution as a child under the Nazis has eaten away at his soul," he said.

He also explained that many Jews in Germany are concerned by radical Islam's calls to destroy Israel but insisted that Giordano should not make his fears of anti-Semitism an excuse to strip Muslim citizens of their rights.

Public opinion

Pro Cologne, meanwhile, launched an Internet campaign to mobilize as many people as possible to attend an open forum in late May discussing the mosque.

But when the meeting took place recently in a school assembly hall, a stone's throw from the eventual site, the majority were more sympathetic to the mosque than to Pro Cologne.

"For 20 years, thousands of people have been forced to say their prayers in an old factory building and I don't think this is right," said one local.

"I think it's very late that we start this process and I'm very happy that we're doing it now," said another. "I think it's very good for Cologne, and it's very good for Ehrenfeld!"

Architect Paul Böhm is in charge of plans for the new mosque. He told the crowd that despite the public uproar, he has no regrets taking the job…

"I am a citizen of this town, and every day I see this old building which is nearly empty, but only a small room in the courtyard is used by Muslims for praying," he said. "I've always thought we need to find someone to build a real Mosque for these people. I've wanted to help for a along time, and now I have the chance."

Tourist attraction

Tag der offenen Moschee
A new mosque could be a new tourist atttraction for CologneImage: dpa

Citizens had their chance to put forward their complaints and concerns about the planned mosque, which focused mainly on traffic congestion on the already busy neighboring streets, and the height of the planned minarets.

Others simply took the floor to say how happy they were that Cologne would finally have a proper mosque, adding that racism was not welcome in their multicultural city.

Marlis Brederhorst, Cologne's official representative for integration was confident that the Mosque would do the city good.

"It's wonderful," she said. "Cologne is a city of churches, and its most beautiful buildings are churches. Now we'll have another tourist attraction, and I think it's good for integration for the Muslims in Cologne because this will be a mosque they can be proud of."