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Spain’s Many Muslims Face Dearth of Mosques
By Victoria Burnett ("New York Times," March 16, 2008)

Lleida, Spain — As prayer time approached on a chilly Friday afternoon and men drifted toward the mosque on North Street, Hocine Kouitene hauled open its huge steel doors.

As places of worship go, the crudely converted garage leaves much to be desired, said Mr. Kouitene, vice president of the Islamic Association for Union and Cooperation in Lleida, a prosperous medieval town in northeastern Spain surrounded by fruit farms that are a magnet for immigrant workers. Freezing in winter and stifling in summer, the prayer hall is so cramped that the congregation, swollen to 1,000 from 50 over the past five years, sometimes spills onto the street.

“It’s just not the same to pray in a garage as it is to pray in a proper mosque,” said Mr. Kouitene, an imposing Algerian in a long, black coat and white head scarf. “We want a place where we can pray comfortably, without bothering anybody.”

Although Spain is peppered with the remnants of ancient mosques, most Muslims gather in dingy apartments, warehouses and garages like the one on North Street, pressed into service as prayer halls to accommodate a ballooning population.

The mosque shortage stems partly from the lack of resources common to any relatively poor, rapidly growing immigrant group. But in several places, Muslims trying to build mosques have also met resistance from communities wary of an alien culture or fearful they will foster violent radicals.

Distrust sharpened after a group of Islamists bombed commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, killing 191 people, and in several cities, local governments, cowed by angry opposition from non-Muslims, have blocked Muslim groups from acquiring land for mosques.

The result, Muslim leaders say, is that some Muslims feel anchorless and marginalized.

“A proper mosque would act as a focus, a reference point for Islam here,” said Mohammed Halhoul, spokesman for the Catalan Islamic Council. A quarter of Spain’s Muslims live in Catalonia, the northeastern region that is home to Lleida, but the area has no real mosques.

“I feel like a Catalan,” Mr. Halhoul said, “except when it comes to the question of the mosque.”

Muslims ruled much of Spain for centuries, but after they were ultimately vanquished in the 1400s, their mosques were either left to ruin or converted into churches. Since then, fewer than a dozen new mosques have been built to serve Spain’s Muslim population, which has grown in the past 10 years to about one million from about 50,000 as immigrants have poured into the country.

That rise has coincided with a decline in church attendance in overwhelmingly Catholic Spain, giving new echo to an old rivalry between the two religions. It was the Catholic king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, who defeated the last Moorish ruler in Spain in 1492 and oversaw the expulsion of Jews and Muslims. Now, as churches struggle to draw a dwindling flock, Muslim prayer halls are overflowing.

“The reality of this country has changed much faster than that of other countries,” Ángel Ros, Lleida’s mayor, said in an interview. “A process that took 30 years in Italy or France has taken 10 years in Spain.”

Lleida is a case in point: a city whose 13th-century cathedral looms from a fortified hilltop over plains that produce half of Spain’s pears and apples, it has drawn a flood of immigrants. They now make up nearly a fifth of the city’s 125,000 residents, compared with 4 percent in 2000. A quarter of them are from Muslim countries. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, has replaced Saturday as a day off in addition to Sunday on many local farms.

The North Street prayer hall faced opposition from the outset. Marta Roigé, head of the local neighborhood association, said residents tried to block it five years ago by renting the garage themselves, but backed down after the landlord started a bidding war. They have since sued the local council to close it down on the basis that it is a health and safety hazard.

“The tension has grown as the numbers have grown,” Ms. Roigé said. “They’ve set up shops, butchers, long-distance call centers and restaurants.” These businesses, catering to Muslim immigrants, line the surrounding streets.

She added: “They are radicals, fundamentalists. They don’t want to integrate.”

Muslim leaders, however, say the lack of proper mosques is one barrier to integration. And Spanish authorities and Muslim leaders say the potential for extremism would be easier to monitor at fewer, larger mosques than at the 600 or so prayer halls scattered throughout the country.

Some Muslim leaders believe the tide is starting to turn in their bid to return minarets to Spanish skylines. Following a pact between the Islamic Association and Lleida’s town hall in December, the city may become the first in Catalonia to build a mosque.

The association secured a 50-year lease on a plot of government land on the edge of town, and Mr. Kouitene says the group hopes to break ground next year if it can raise the money.

Several other Muslim communities are on the verge of similar breakthroughs. In the southern city of Seville, Muslims are close to obtaining a plot of land for a mosque after years of bitter local resistance; in 2005 protesters dumped a pig’s head on a plot originally chosen.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition in Catalonia submitted a bill in the regional parliament in December that would oblige local governments to set aside land for mosques and other places of worship. Representatives of Muslim organizations hope it will inspire a similar national law.

“People are realizing the world has changed and they can’t look the other way,” said Mohammed Chaib, a member of the Catalan parliament and the only Muslim lawmaker in Spain.

Some Catholic clerics see things differently. Cardinal Luis Martínez Sistach, archbishop of Barcelona, opposes the bill, which would entitle all religious groups to land on an equal basis. He argues that Catholicism requires different rules.

“A church, a synagogue or a mosque are not the same thing,” he said, according to the conservative Spanish newspaper ABC. The bill, he said, “impinges on our ability to exercise a fundamental right, that of religious liberty.”

While no law on religious land use exists, the wealthy Catholic Church faces no difficulty acquiring land, experts in law and religion say.

Álex Seglers, an expert on church-state relations, is skeptical that the bill will be effective. The bill is vague and gives local governments too much discretion over what land it provides to which group, he says.

For the worshipers at North Street, the next big hurdle is money. Spain’s secular state cannot finance religious buildings, though it has a special arrangement to subsidize the Catholic Church.

“We have a saying in our religion,” Mr. Kouitene said. “Anywhere there are even a few Muslims, you must build a mosque for joint prayer. Otherwise, the devil rules in that place.”

Mayor Ros, for one, welcomes the building.

“We used to have a dominant religion, and now we have many religions and we have to find a way of respecting that fact,” he said. “Churches were the great public works of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. Now I see a day when every large city in Spain will have a mosque.”


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