Sunday

26th Jan 2020

Turkey-funded mega-mosque in Bucharest sparks resistance

  • Hundreds protested in Bucharest against the proposed mosque on Monday (Photo: Michael Bird)

Resistance is growing in Bucharest to a giant mosque proposed for the city and financed by Turkey, as part of its push to build religious centres in major cities outside the country.

The Romanian government has given 11,000 sqm of terrain next to the exhibition centre 'Romexpo' with a market value of €3.9 million for free to the Mufti of the Romanian Muslim Community, Murat Yusuf.

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  • The proposed site for the mosque. The exhibition centre Romexpo is in the background (Photo: Michael Bird)

On the site, Turkey will finance the building of a mosque, initially meant to be "the largest in a European capital".

But opposition to the project comes from a broad mix of Romanian intellectuals, ex-President Traian Basescu, extreme-right groups and some Muslims.

"The construction of this mosque is a political decision between the Romanian and Turkish governments," says Ruxandra Fatma Yilmaz, who is preparing a doctorate about Islam in Europe at Bucharest's National School of Political Science (SNSPA).

"It does not come from the Muslim community. Many from the Muslim community were surprised at the decision."

A protest group "We don't want a mega-mosque in Bucharest" has exploded with over 12,000 likes on Facebook, organised by far-right group Noua Dreapta (New Right).

They argue that there is no demand for the mosque and this is a "political" move borne out of Turkish expansionism.

One of the organisers, Vlad Cantacuzino, says the protest is not against "Islam or the Muslim community".

However Noua Dreapta is arguing that the mosque is designed not for Romanian Muslims, but for millions of immigrants who will come to the country.

At a protest Monday night (20 July), hundreds demanded the government to begin a "democratic process" involving an open and public discussion followed by a referendum.

A referendum is likely to produce a rejection of the building. Local newspaper Gandul ran an Internet survey, attracting 10,000 visitors - which found 92 percent of respondents were against the mosque.

Shrinking mosque

At first, the Mufti Murat Yusuf called the mosque "the largest in a European capital" - which would have to come with a price tag of tens of millions of euro.

But he backtracked on this claim in a press conference on 14 July, talking about more modest ambitions. The complex is to have the capacity to hold 1,000 - 1,500 worshippers. It is to be ready by 2018.

The Bucharest mosque is the culmination of 11 years of talks and promises between the Romanian and Turkish states.

In return, Romania requested the construction of a new Orthodox Church in Istanbul.

Ex-foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu, who was present at talks with then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009, says the idea was a "mutual exchange", but although there was the political will, administrative issues stopped the process.

However the church project in Istanbul has been shelved because it is "not allowed under Turkish law", Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta stated on 15 July.

Instead Ponta declared that the Orthodox Church has land from Istanbul to build a hotel for pilgrims.

But there is no law against the establishment of churches in Turkey, as in January this year, the Syriac Orthodox community gained approval to construct a church in Yesilkoy, Istanbul.

Diaconescu says the issue of 'mutual exchange' should have been solved before the government made a decision on the mosque.

If it would have been clear that this was a straight swap between countries, Diaconescu says: "nothing would have been questioned".

The mosque announcement emerged during Prime Minister Ponta's month-long sojourn in Turkey recuperating from knee surgery, reportedly sustained in a basketball accident.

The sudden departure came days after Ponta was questioned by Romania's National Anti-Corruption Department (DNA), which is investigating claims that he was involved in money laundering and tax evasion.

Among the conspiracy-hungry Romanian population, the coincidence of the mosque announcement and Ponta's mysterious visit to the Bosphorus generated some suspicion.

But the PM's office told this website that Ponta did not discuss the mosque project with the Turkish authorities or religious figures while in Turkey.

Fear of extremism

However this has also roused nationalistic sympathies which border on the radical.

A poster on the site of "We don't want a mega-mosque in Bucharest" uses an image of a giant Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist brandishing a rocket launcher looming over the Romanian parliament.

The event was attended by partner organisation to Noua Dreapta, Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko "The People's Party Our Slovakia".

Its leader Marian Kotleba claimed "Europe is inundated with immigrants from Asia and Africa. In Brussels, they don't respect the views of the people and they open the door to immigrants" and stated "Slovakia is the only country in Europe without a mosque" to cheers and 'Bravo' from the crowd.

Noua Dreapta President Tudor Ionescu stated the mosque is not for the Muslims in Romania, "but for the millions of immigrants who will enter Romania in the next ten years", quoting recent European Commission's proposals that member states should accept some of the asylum-seekers that have come to the EU.

This has caused some concern that the mosque could amplify anti-Islamic feelings, which have not existed in Romania before.

"A problem is that public debate today, alas, has a temptation to induce tension," says ex-foreign minister Diaconescu, "and the Muslim community in Romania has been extremely peaceful. There has been an absence of any form of polemic."

But he does not believe that extremism will flare up following this decision.

"Members of the extreme right are very few in Romania - and their resonance in society is non-existent," he says.

Speaking to this website Mufit Yusuf Murat said: "Once we start to build the mosque, they will see it will benefit all Romanian society."

"We need the mosque to keep on a check on all religious activity," he added. "In Bucharest there are many mosques and we don't know what the Imams preach in those mosques."

Empty mosque

Meanwhile there is a concern that there may not be great interest for such a mosque.

Romania has around 64,000 Muslims, with the vast majority living around the port of Constanta.

There are estimated to be around 10,000 Muslims in Bucharest.

This includes converts, ethnic Turks, businesspeople and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, spread wide across a city of two million people.

"The Muslim community in Bucharest is very fragmented. This is the reality of Islam. There are many groups. It's like a mosaic," says Yilmaz.

There are also five mosques in the city as well as numerous prayer rooms. Yilmaz says there is a risk the new mosque will be "empty" because no one will go.

Financing mosques abroad

The Bucharest move is part of Turkey's general policy of financing international religious centres. A $100 million mega-mosque is under construction in Lanham, Maryland, close to Washington DC, co-financed by the Turks.

But the largest number are proposed for eastern Europe.

In the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali there is an ongoing plan for a mosque for 1,500 worshippers, a gift from Turkey to the city.

In May this year Erdogan laid the foundation stone on a new €30 million mosque in Tirana, Albania, which the Turkish state is financing for 20,000 capacity over 20,000 sqm, called the biggest in the Balkans.

In the same month, a design emerged of a possible mega mosque to be built in Budapest, Hungary, financed by Turkey.

The city mayor István Tarlós confirmed the question of a mosque "has been raised" with officials at the Turkish Embassy, but they have not yet found a suitable location.

Meanwhile in Istanbul itself works are going on to build a giant mosque, in Camlica, on a hill on the Anatolian shore with a capacity of 30,000 and visible from the entire city.

In February, during a visit to Cuba, Erdogan also proposed the construction of a mosque in Havana.

However Saudi Arabia is also planning a mosque on the secular and communist Caribbean island.

Additional reporting: Zeynep Sentek

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