A German small-town mayor has come under criticism for wanting to give two Muslim communities free property for mosque construction. Now the project is being renegotiated. reports DW's Wolfgang Dick in Monheim.
A traditional Turkish marriage ceremony recently took place in front of the city hall in Monheim. The Muslim guests have good reason to feel at home here: Daniel Zimmermann, the 34-year-old mayor, is sticking to his plan: "I was often a guest at their mosques and realized how little space they had." Muslims comprise 15 percent of Monheim's 43,000 residents, and their numbers are growing. "Therefore, we have to support our living together."
The two Muslim communities in Monheim lack necessary prayer and event space. That space is to be provided – not in the city's commercial district or on streets without parking, but in the city center. That is, if Zimmermann gets his way.
The city has enough land and budget surplus to give property valued at 850,000 euros ($948,000) for free. The buildings would then be constructed at the Muslim communities' expense.
In a small survey conducted in Monheim's market square, many older city residents came out against the plan. The mayor received 300 anonymous hate messages by phone and e-mail in July, but he seems unfazed: "That there aren't more right-wing extremists nationwide shows me that the majority of Germans are on the correct side." Zimmermann was reelected two years ago with nearly 95 percent of the vote. He represents the Peto party (Latin for: I challenge), which he helped found.
A public assembly in July was well attended and orderly, however the tone of the meeting showed the need for further clarification. There remains the possibility for a referendum on the matter. Rashida, a Muslim resident of Monheim, is critical of the city's offer, as are many of her fellow community members. "If we agree to the terms attached to the offer, we can lose the property despite our investment. I wouldn't accept it." The free land would return to city hands should the community violate the law, fail to participate in integration programs or act intolerantly towards other religions. "A sort of reciprocity in business," Zimmermann said. It would be a means of influencing what goes on in the mosques.
Resistance from city council
The CDU, SPD and Greens don't agree with the plan and have put together a joint request to participate in setting the conditions and choosing the land. "We support providing land in general, but the specific piece of property in question could be the location of 40 to 50 apartments. Housing has priority," Werner Goller, head of the local SPD, said. The mayor's push has been stalled. Now the integration board, residents and the city council all have a say.
Breach of neutrality
The property transfer plan raises the question of whether the city is favoring a particular group over another. The mayor doesn't think so. "We've given the Evangelical community $225,000 to repair the church roof and $170,000 to the Catholic community for social services space."
The needs of the Muslim communities are simply larger and different. "We really need it," said Ramazan Agcora, the chairperson of the Turkish-Muslim Culture Association, "but we don't want it for free if it causes conflict. We'd like to bring all parties together." The first round of negotiations are set to take place this week with the integration board.
Despite a few critics, residents of Monheim are largely supportive of the Muslim community. In August, residents and members of Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities held a procession through the city to promote mutual understanding. They carried with them a metal wheel – a curious sight to bystanders and a symbol of religious unity – which they used to create an imprint in sand in front of houses of worship throughout the city. The "sand angel" became an angel of cultures.
The event sent a clear signal that, regardless of how the land deal plays out, most support integration, and that is something the forthcoming negotiations won't change. A final decision is to be made by the city council in September.