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Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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October 13, 2016

Islamophobia in Romania:
Lawsuit filed against building of a mosque in Bucharest

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Amid anti-Islam and anti-Muslim euphoria, fomented by opportunist right-wing politicians, a lawsuit has been filed in Bucharest against building a mosque in the Romanian capital.

The lawsuit seeks to reverse a June 2015 decision by the then Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta, to approve construction of what could become the largest mosque in Eastern Europe — second only to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — on a large tract of city-owned land in northern Bucharest.

The property, valued at US$4.4 million, is being provided for free by the Romanian government, while the construction cost, estimated at US $3.3 million, is pledged by Turkey.

Prime Minister Ponta said the mosque will reap economic benefits for Romania because Turkey is the country's leading non-EU trading partner. Both countries have pledged to increase their trade to ten billion dollars within next five years.

The mosque's critics, including an array of Romanian politicians and anti-immigration groups, claim that the building of the mosque will it increase Turkish influence over Romania and it will also encourage Muslim immigration to the country.

Not surprisingly, Tudor Ionescu, leader of the anti-immigration Noua Dreaptă (New Right) party  was quoted as saying: Turkey attempts a symbolic conquest of Europe through these mosques.” Noua Dreaptă has organized protests against the project where people have chanted, "Romania is not a Turkish province."

Tellingly, backing the Romanian protests has been the far-right People’s Party of Slovakia, whose leader, Marian Kotleba, was cheered at a Bucharest protest in July 2015 when he noted Slovakia is “the only country in Europe without a mosque.” 

The mosque’s defenders say the project has become a test of the country’s religious tolerance.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta said the mosque was a symbol of  Romania's acceptance of the Muslim community. “I’m sorry that in our country there are still irresponsible people playing with so sensitive and important things such as peace, respect and interfaith solidarity,” said Ponta. 

The Romanian Orthodox Church supports the mosque project. But its leaders have called on Turkey to grant them property in Istanbul for an Orthodox pilgrim center, including a chapel.

The Bucharest mosque is the result of more than a decade of talks between the Romanian and Turkish governments. The original deal called for a "mutual exchange" in which Romania would build a new Orthodox Church in Istanbul, while Turkey would build the mosque in Bucharest.

In July 2015, however, Ponta revealed that the Romanian government had abandoned the Istanbul church project because it is "not allowed under Turkish law." Ponta approved the Bucharest mosque project, saying it was a multicultural symbol of Romania's acceptance of the Muslim community.

During a visit to Romania in April last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the mosque will be the "the most beautiful expression of dialogue and solidarity between the two countries." In March this year, during an official visit to Turkey, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis reassured President Erdoğan that the mosque project is moving forward. 

In July 2015 Romanian officials signed a deal with the Romanian mufti’s office to build the mosque for 1,000 worshippers, an Islamic library and a community center on 37,000 square feet of city-owned land in northern Bucharest. 

According to 2011 census, the Muslim population of Romania is 64,337, or less than one percent of the country's population of 19.5 million. Interestingly, the Muslim population in 1930 was 185,486, according to that year’s census. Bucharest is home to around 9,000 Muslims who are being served by ten mosques scattered throughout the city. 

Turkey has been underwriting new buildings and preservation work on Ottoman-era sites in the Balkans for years. Ankara is currently spending around $33 million on a new Islamic Center in Tirana, Albania, for example, with a capacity of 20,000 that would reportedly be the biggest in the Balkans. It is also financing a mosque that could serve 1,500 worshippers in the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali.

In April this year President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the Turkish American Cultural Center and mosque in Lanham, Maryland built at the cost of about 100 million dollars.

Romania is a secular republic without state religion. However, its 86,8% population is Orthodox Christians. Islam is one of 18 religious denominations recognized by law 489/2006. Muslims can receive material support from the State for the maintenance of mosques, monuments and other communal buildings. According to the law only the muftiate has the right to organize Hajj (pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina). 

A mufti must be a Romanian citizen, born in Romania and with no other previous citizenship and a graduate of an Islamic theological institute in Romania. 

In 1999, Romanian writer, George Grigore, wrote: Romanian principalities, once known as the 'gates of the Levant', have a history of religious and ethnic diversity. In Romania today, the Muslim population traditionally lives together with the Romanian majority (Christian-Orthodox) in an area called Dobrudja, a territory bordered to the east by the Black Sea, to the west and north by the Danube River and to the south by the Romanian-Bulgarian frontier. 

Bogdana Todorova of Bulgarian Academy of Sciences wrote in 2012:  “In Bulgaria and Romania, the process of integration stems from their history: it is not simply a bridge between the East and the West but a bridge between the tradition and the new European values. Co-existence on equal basis of Christians and Muslims, participation in a common cultural model trough rules and rights, mandatory for both communities, is the common value that the two countries reckon on.” 

The Balkan space is like a big coffee house and a good example of real dialogue, which can be used by European countries, Bogdana Todorova wrote in Annals of the University of Bucharest Philosophy Series. 

However, the wave of refugees streaming into Europe from the western fomented wars in the Middle East has stoked unabashed hate for Muslims in Romania and other European nations.  

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America (www.journalofamerica.net) email: asghazali2011 (@) gmail.com