BELGRADE (Reuters) - Local authorities demolished an illegal mosque on the outskirts of Belgrade after Serbian police secured the area in a pre-dawn action on Friday, ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, despite protests by local Muslims and Islamic clergy.
The construction of a two-storey mosque without a minaret in the Zemun Polje neighbourhood started in 2014 even though the authorities had refused to grant it a construction permit.
On Thursday, the authorities attempted the demolition of the building but withdrew after protests by Muslims from the neighbourhood, mainly members of the Roma (Gypsy) minority. Early on Friday, they returned with the police escort and tore down much of building.
Belgrade's city manager Goran Vesic said the authorities "destroyed an illegally built building, in line with law," the Tanjug news agency reported.
Belgrade's top Islamic cleric, Mufti Muhamed Jusufspahic, said the Islamic community would protest to the Serbian president.
"We are unpleasantly surprised as this happened on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan," Jusufspahic told Reuters.
In the Serbian capital of around 1.6 million, there are about 20,000 practising Muslims and only one mosque, which was built in 1575 when the Balkans were ruled by Ottoman Turks.
"We have asked people to remain calm," he said. "The authorities flexed muscles on the poor ... other religious communities are building their places of worship unimpeded," he said.
Jusufspahic said the Belgrade authorities have not issued a single construction permit to the Muslim community over the past five decades. His claim could not be verified.
Serbia is home to around 230,000 Muslims or 3.1 percent of the total population, mostly concentrated in the southwestern Sandzak region that borders Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro. A majority of the country's population is Orthodox Christian.
The Balkan country is a candidate for European Union membership, but before it joins the bloc it must improve the rule of law and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Daria Sito-Sucic and Pritha Sarkar