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Symbol of Tolerance?

DPA news agency (kjb)November 29, 2008

Berlin's first Ahmadi mosque opened its doors in the former eastern side of the German capital last month. The building and the religious group are putting religious tolerance to the test.

An outside few of the Ahmadi Mosque in Berlin
The new mosque is not welcome by everyone in the neighborhoodImage: Gisela Pock

A 13-meter-high (43-foot) minaret competes for attention alongside pillars advertising the fast food outlets at a busy intersection in Pankow, a north-eastern suburb of Berlin.

Inside the mosque, the call to Friday prayer echoes as men fall to their knees. Upstairs, women turn to the loudspeakers relaying the imam's chant. It is not audible from the streets, where the mosque draws suspicious disapproval.

The Khadija Mosque, which opened on Oct. 16, has met with strong opposition ever since its inception in 2006. The first purpose-built mosque to open in former East Germany, it provides a new center for Berlin's Ahmadi community.

Ahmadiyya Islam is a reform movement founded in India in the 19th century. The Ahmadi are not recognized by mainstream Muslims, and many have left Pakistan where they face religious persecution.

Symbol of tolerance?

An imam reads the Koran
Honor killings and arranged marriage have heightened debate over Islamic law in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

At the opening ceremony, Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, described the mosque as an icon of religious and cultural tolerance. At the same time, 500 police officers were present to keep demonstrators at bay.

A residents' group campaigning against the Ahmadiyya Muslims perceives them to be an authoritarian sect, with no respect for women's rights. Over the last two years, the group has staged demonstrations and lodged appeals against the mosque.

Although they say their motives are not racist, the campaign has been tainted by its appeal to right-wing organizations.

The mosque has also received letters of support from people within the community. Now Imam Abdul Basit Tariq has announced two "days of the open mosque," for people to visit and ask questions.

"I hope that with our personal contact and personal friendly behaviour we are going to win the heart of the people," he said.

After the prayer session, Dure Shahwar talked about her former life in Pakistan.

"We had to leave because of religious problems," she said.

Around 200 Ahmadis live in Berlin.

"Until the mosque was opened, we had just one house to pray in," Shahwar said. "Now this mosque is here, I hope more Ahmadis will move to Berlin."

Group accused of extremism

Back in his office, Abdul Tariq talks of the difficulty of teaching Islam in Europe.

"There are so many things in European society that are strictly forbidden in Islam," he said. "You're not allowed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, ( ... ) it's punishable."

Similarly, he said drinking alcohol and visiting discos are out of bounds for young Muslims.

"As imam, I have to have an eye on them so they don't do anything that is strictly forbidden in Islam," he said.

Opposition groups criticize Ahmaddiya Islam for being extremist and authoritarian. Tariq said this is far from the truth.

"We are a reform community," he said, adding that they are fighting fundamentalism. "We don't believe in holy war, we don't believe that for fornication, one should be stoned to death."

Tariq said he can understand the animosity towards Islam, and blames the actions of an extremist minority.

"People have no information about Islam, they are totally misinformed," he said. "That's why, when they heard that Pakistani people were coming here, they were terrified."

In former East Germany, this fear is compounded by the fact that religious expression had been banned under communist rule.

Dure Shahwar said he sees an opportunity in this.

"I think people in eastern Germany are more interested in us," she said. "Because they had no religion, they are curious."

In her opinion, people in western Germany have stronger prejudices.

"Peaceful coexistence" so far

It is questionable how many of Pankow's residents will visit during the open house. Nino Bartczak, 24, lives in an apartment block across the road. He doesn't think a mosque belongs in the neighborhood.

Ahmadiyya muslims pray at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Khadija Mosque
Ahmadiyya muslims pray at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Khadija MosqueImage: picture-Alliance/dpa

"The people here are German through and through," he said. "They are older people, with a more nationalist attitude. I suppose I need to accept it, I live here. But I'm not happy about it."

Others, such as fish shop owner Michael Fleck, are relieved there has been little trouble so far.

"We were worried it would become a meeting point for left- or right-wing extremists," he said.

Glancing towards the mosque, his colleague Jens Poloni added: "They leave us alone and we leave them alone. It's a peaceful coexistence at the moment. I hope it stays that way."

The government estimates that between 3 and 3.4 million Muslims live in Germany, the vast majority of whom are of Turkish descent. Around 160 purpose-built mosques exist in Germany, alongside a further 2,600 buildings converted into makeshift places of worship.

There are plans to build almost 200 additional mosques.

Debate over status of women

Within Germany, a fierce debate is taking place about the strictures of Islamic law, especially regarding the status of women. A series of so-called honor killings have focused the issue, and the practice of arranged marriage is receiving media attention.

The German constitution safeguards religious freedom, and also grants every religious denomination the right to build dedicated places of worship.