Cologne mosque divides religions in Germany

COLOGNE, Germany Thu Jul 5, 2007 9:23am BST

Bekir Alboga, official in charge of interreligious dialogue of the Turkish Islamic Union DITIB, stands in front of a poster of a planned mosque in the union's headquarters, in Cologne, Germany, July 3, 2007. The plan to build the large mosque in Cologne, home to one of Christianity's most imposing cathedrals, is causing sparks to fly in the once peaceful world of inter-religious dialogue in Germany. Picture taken July 3, 2007. To match feature GERMANY-MOSQUE/ REUTERS/Tom Heneghan (GERMANY)

Bekir Alboga, official in charge of interreligious dialogue of the Turkish Islamic Union DITIB, stands in front of a poster of a planned mosque in the union's headquarters, in Cologne, Germany, July 3, 2007. The plan to build the large mosque in Cologne, home to one of Christianity's most imposing cathedrals, is causing sparks to fly in the once peaceful world of inter-religious dialogue in Germany. Picture taken July 3, 2007. To match feature GERMANY-MOSQUE/

Credit: Reuters/Tom Heneghan (GERMANY)

COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - A plan to build a large mosque in Cologne, home to one of Christianity's most imposing cathedrals, is causing sparks to fly in the once peaceful world of inter-religious dialogue in Germany.

The local Catholic leader, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, has said the project gives him "a bad feeling" and Turkey should allow its Christian minorities more rights if Turkish immigrants here can stamp a dome and tall minarets onto the city skyline.

At a discussion in Cologne with a Muslim leader last month, Germany's top Protestant bishop, Wolfgang Huber, criticised the "male domination" he saw in Islam and said Muslims should be able to convert to Christianity without fearing reprisals.

Bekir Alboga of the Turkish Islamic Union DITIB, which will build the mosque, has accused the churches of portraying Islam as a threat in order to rally their dwindling flocks.

"There's a new edge to the debate about Islam in Germany," the respected weekly Die Zeit observed. "Recognising that Islam belongs in Germany was not the end, but only the beginning of a cultural conflict."

Germany, where the near even balance between Catholics and Protestants has fostered good ecumenical relations in recent decades, last year launched an "Islam Conference" for government and Muslim officials to discuss integrating the religion.

It has also opened consultations between government officials and Muslim leaders on how to better integrate its 3.2 million Muslims, over half of whom are of Turkish origin.

ISLAM HERE TO STAY

The Cologne mosque project has come to symbolise the tensions that arise as Germany recognises that Islam -- brought here in the 1960s by Turkish "guest workers" who were expected to return home at some point -- is now here to stay.

DITIB, a branch of the Turkish government's religious affairs authority, wants to build the mosque in a western suburb where a drab former pharmaceutical factory now houses its offices and prayer room.

The plan calls for a mosque with prayer space for 2,000, a high glass and concrete dome and two tall minarets in the Ottoman Turkish style. It would be flanked by DITIB offices.

"It would not be the biggest mosque in Germany, but it would be the biggest Muslim centre," Alboga, DITIB's official for inter-religious dialogue, said. "There are 120,000 Muslims in Cologne, the largest number in any German city."

The complex got approval from City Hall but met with growing criticism from Christian leaders and a small far-right group, which rallied about 150 people to protest against it last month.

Cardinal Meisner said the mosque would change the skyline of Cologne, a city crowned by its massive Gothic cathedral, even though the minarets would stand far away in a leafy suburb.

Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of the German Bishops Conference, upset Muslims by saying Germany should not show "uncritical tolerance" and treat Islam like other religions.

DITIB has rejected suggestions that it lower the mosque's minarets, planned to rise 55 metres, or its dome.

Alboga said: "It's a fact that fear of Islam has risen by 20 percent in the last two to three years.

"The churches no longer enjoy credibility and are losing many members. Both of them have portrayed Islam as an enemy in order to gain some control over their flocks."

He said he appreciated the way the issue was debated openly in Germany, but added: "We have to conduct this debate sensitively so it does not spread a general suspicion of all Muslims."

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