Muslims call for prison imams

Budapest, Hungary - ZOLTÁN Bolek, president of the Hungarian Islamic Community, says regulations need to be changed in order to ensure free practice of religion for Muslims in Hungarian prisons with the help of an imam.

"Our prison mission has a lot of obstacles," Bolek told The Budapest Sun, claiming imprisoned Muslims are deprived of assistance from their spiritual leaders.

But Katalin Yazbekné Szabó, spokesperson for the prison authorities, said it was a matter of demand, not denial. "No one has requested a representation [imam] of this religion in our prisons yet, neither the prisoners nor community leaders," she said. "There is simply no demand for it and that's why the religion is not represented. We do consider the needs of Muslim prisoners, their eating habits and we even provide carpets for praying, but not a single person has requested a religious representation so far, although our doors are open to any religion."

Balázs Tóth, program assistant of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee told The Sun, "According to the 1996 order of the Ministry of Justice, the rights for free practice of religion are ensured for the prisoners if they don't break the rules and don't hinder a newly launched criminal procedure." In practice this ruling ensures rights only for the pastors of Hungary's "historical" churches.

Bolek believes this is a problem. "Only these pastors have a contract and a position and only they get salary. Unfortunately, since we should work under the supervision of a Christian priest, our job would be hindered," he said.

"The Hungarian Islamic community became a recognized religious community in 1916.

This religion has a great past in Hungary, we have written documents of Muslim settlers from the period between the 9-13th centuries. Also, the 150-year-long Turkish conquest influenced Hungary greatly."

Hungary's 32 prisons house some 16,500 people, including several hundred Muslims (of Turkish, Albanian, Serbian and Asian origin). Religious needs are met by 18 Roman Catholic priests, three Evangelicals, five Reformed pastors, and one rabbi.

Katalin Román, a Hungarian Muslim, told The Sun that introducing an imam would have only positive effects. "It would create a positive atmosphere, which can have a good effect on the prisoners," she said.