Visitors explore the prayer room of the Merkez Mosque, which opened last week in Duisburg.
Visitors explore the prayer room of the Merkez Mosque, which opened last week in Duisburg.

Mosques being built across Germany

DUISBURG, GERMANY // After half a century worshipping in ramshackle prayer rooms, cellars and spartan backstreet halls, Germany's Muslim immigrants have started building grand new mosques in a push for recognition that is filling many Germans with suspicion. The inauguration last month of a mosque in Berlin was marred by 200 demonstrators with banners that read "Stop the Islamisation of Europe". In Cologne, plans for a big mosque were met with a far-right campaign warning that "the muezzin call and headscarves are flooding our streets".

The building spree marks a new phase in the painfully slow integration of the 3.2 million Muslims in Germany, most of them Turks who came as "guest workers" in the 1950s and 1960s when Germany was short of manpower after the Second World War. Many never returned to their home countries, and the desire for more prominent places of worship reflects both homesickness and a realisation that Germany will remain their home.

"The construction of mosques is a sign that people are committed to staying here, that they belong here," said Turkish-born Zehra Yilmaz, 44, a teacher in the industrial western city of Duisburg. "Germany has been slower than other European countries to accept that it's a country of immigration." There are almost 200 mosques under construction or being planned in Germany - more than anywhere else in Europe - and given the recent controversies, one might have expected the opening of Germany's largest mosque in Duisburg last month to be a tense affair.

But there was no hint of protest among the more than 5,000 residents, Muslim and non-Muslim, who turned up to the ceremony to marvel at the grand Ottoman-style domed building and the sumptuous gilded interior that offers room for 1,200 worshippers. In fact, there was so little controversy about the Merkez Mosque in the Duisburg district of Marxloh, a former coal mining area, that it has been dubbed "The Miracle of Marxloh".

Now Germany is wondering what went right. Ms Yilmaz, who runs educational courses at the mosque and gives tours of it, said the trick was to involve everyone in the community - politicians, church representatives of all faiths, local residents and organisations - in the planning of the building right from the start. "We asked people 'how do we build a mosque that doesn't cause fears, what do we need to look out for?' " Ms Yilmaz said. "And as a result of the talks we didn't build the minaret too high and agreed not to have a muezzin call."

Large plain windows were put in the ground floor at the request of German residents who wanted an open, transparent mosque - a response to fears of Islamic hate preaching after the September 11 attacks. The Muslim community even agreed to a webcam in the prayer hall. To promote interaction with non-Muslims, a meeting centre was built into the basement of the mosque with a Turkish cafe, a lecture hall and a library that stocks the Quran in German and the Bible in Turkish. It will offer a variety of classes, including language courses.

The mosque, with its 34-metre high minaret, 23-metre main dome and numerous smaller domes, has been described as a "Hagia Sophia in miniature" in reference to the great Istanbul landmark. The interior is dominated by a giant gilded candelabrum with 100 lights. Blue windows around the gallery, intricate wall paintings and a plush red carpet give it a beauty and splendour that contrasts with its drab surroundings of rundown, soot-covered houses and chimney stacks in what is one of Duisburg's poorest districts. About a third of the residents are Turkish immigrants and their children.

Before the mosque was built, the Islamic community had to make do with praying in the former canteen of Marxloh's disused coal mine, one of more than 50 rudimentary prayer rooms in Duisburg. "We chose the classic Ottoman style because we have missed this architecture for 50 years," Ms Yilmaz said. "It's a symbol that we have arrived, that we're part of this society and not just foreigners and guest workers one wants to get rid of."

Peter Weimarn, a pensioner who had just visited the mosque, said: "I like it a lot. You can see how proud the Turks around here are of it. They're clearly happy they've got a cultural focus now and I'm pleased for them." The European Union and the regional government of North Rhine-Westphalia provided ?3.5 million (Dh16.3m) for the meeting centre and the remaining ?4 million for the mosque came from donations.

"This is exactly what we needed, the meeting centre is unprecedented, it's a way to bring Germans and immigrants together," said Gunther Holtmeyer, who was on the local advisory panel for the mosque. "If this works it could be a model for the whole of Germany." Ms Yilmaz said town councils around Germany were now asking the Muslims of Marxloh for advice on their own mosque projects. But Duisburg may prove to have been a special case. Marxloh has a spirit of comradeship between Germans and immigrants because of its mining industry, residents said. "Down in the pit they learnt to trust one another," said Michael Kemper, the priest of the local Catholic church.

Ms Yilmaz said: "One thousand metres underground it doesn't matter whether you're Christian, Muslim, German or Turkish, everyone's black. That has created friendship." Immigrants in Cologne, Berlin or Munich lack such bonds with the German community. They are still widely referred to as "foreigners" even if they were born in Germany, and in many of the big cities, Turkish communities live parallel lives in virtual ghettos.

The government has recognised the problem and has started regular conferences with Muslim groups, but the initiative is widely seen as a symbolic gesture that has achieved little. There have been no race riots such as in France or Britain. But the rate of unemployment among Muslim immigrants is far higher than the average, partly because of a lack of language skills and the failure of Germany's education system to cater adequately for the children of immigrants.

News magazine Der Spiegel recently described the planned mosques as "conflict architecture" and said the criticism of them was unfair. "One can't accuse Muslims of hiding in back rooms and refusing to integrate themselves and then criticise them for wanting to build proper houses of God in areas where they live in the second and third generation," Der Spiegel wrote. "After all, they are facing up to the public with these projects."

Ms Yilmaz was two when she came to Germany in 1965. She has a German passport and speaks perfect, accent-free German but said she receives regular abuse from passers-by because she wears a headscarf. "I feel it every day. People say things like 'you look s***' or 'go back to where you came from'. Recently someone spat at my feet as they walked past. In the bus or tram I feel people are afraid to sit next to me as if I had a contagious disease."

"I minded at first but these days I shrug it off," said Ms Yilmaz, who started wearing a headscarf when she was 22 and who prays five times a day. "For an ordinary German, Islam means fundamentalism, terror, murder, suicide attacks. We're working step by step to open up to people and tell them we're not terrorists, we're peaceful and have the same goals as you do." Last week, about 1,500 Duisburg residents, many of them elderly Germans, took part in tours of the mosque, staring up at the exquisitely decorated ceiling as they padded around in their socks and listening attentively as Ms Yilmaz explained the mosque.

On Friday, dozens of visitors lined the balcony staring down at Muslim men praying towards Mecca. "The beauty of the mosque attracts people," Ms Yilmaz said. "I can sense when people visit the mosque they leave with their views changed a bit. We're helping to correct the image of Islam a little from the way it's portrayed in the media."

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