Uneasy peace for Berlin's Ahmadi mosque

A 13-metre-high minaret competes for attention alongside pillars advertising the fast food outlets at a busy intersection in Pankow, a north-eastern suburb of Berlin, dpa reported.

Inside the mosque, the call to Friday prayer echoes as men fall to their knees. Upstairs, women turn to the loudspeakers relaying the imam's chant. It is not audible from the streets, where the mosque draws suspicious disapproval.

The Khadija Mosque, which opened on October 16, has met with strong opposition ever since its inception in 2006. The first purpose-built mosque to open in former East Germany, it provides a new centre for Berlin's Ahmadi community.

Ahmadiyya Islam is a reform movement founded in India in the 19th century. The Ahmadi are not recognised by mainstream Muslims, and many have left Pakistan where they face religious persecution.

At the opening ceremony Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, described the mosque as an icon of religious and cultural tolerance. At the same time, 500 police officers were present to keep demonstrators at bay.

A residents' group campaigning against the Ahmadiyya Muslims perceives them to be an authoritarian sect, with no respect for women's rights. Over the last two years, the group has staged demonstrations and lodged appeals against the mosque. Although they say their motives are not racist, the campaign has been tainted by its appeal to right-wing organizations.

The mosque has also received letters of support from people within the community. Now Imam Abdul Basit Tariq has announced two "days of the open mosque," for people to visit and ask questions. "I hope that with our personal contact and personal friendly behaviour we are going to win the heart of the people," he says.

After the prayer session, Dure Shahwar talks about her former life in Pakistan. "We had to leave because of religious problems," she says.

Around 200 Ahmadis live in Berlin. "Until the mosque was opened, we had just one house to pray in," Shahwar says. "Now this mosque is here, I hope more Ahmadis will move to Berlin."

Back in his office, Abdul Tariq talks of the difficulty of teaching Islam in Europe. "There are so many things in European society that are strictly forbidden in Islam. You're not allowed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, ( ... ) it's punishable."

Similarly, he says drinking alcohol and visiting discos are out of bounds for young Muslims. "As imam I have to have an eye on them so they don't do anything that is strictly forbidden in Islam."

Opposition groups criticize Ahmaddiya Islam for being extremist and authoritarian. Tariq says this is far from the truth. "We are a reform community." They are fighting fundamentalism, he says. "We don't believe in holy war, we don't believe that for fornication, one should be stoned to death."

Tariq can understand the animosity towards Islam, and blames the actions of an extremist minority. "People have no information about Islam, they are totally misinformed," he says.

"That's why, when they heard that Pakistani people were coming here, they were terrified." In former East Germany, this fear is compounded by the fact that religious expression had been banned under communist rule.

Dure Shahwar sees an opportunity in this. "I think people in eastern Germany are more interested in us. Because they had no religion, they are curious." In her opinion, people in western Germany have stronger prejudices.

It is questionable how many of Pankow's residents will visit during the open days. Nino Bartczak, 24, lives in an apartment block across the road. He doesn't think a mosque belongs in the neighbourhood.

"The people here are German through and through. They are older people, with a more nationalist attitude. I suppose I need to accept it, I live here. But I'm not happy about it."

Others, such as fish shop owner Michael Fleck, are relieved there has been little trouble so far. "We were worried it would become a meeting point for left- or right-wing extremists," he says.

Glancing towards the mosque, his colleague Jens Poloni adds, "they leave us alone and we leave them alone. It's a peaceful coexistence at the moment. I hope it stays that way."

The government estimates that between 3 and 3.4 million Muslims live in Germany, the vast majority of whom are of Turkish descent.

Around 160 purpose-built mosques exist in Germany, alongside a further 2,600 buildings converted into makeshift places of worship. There are plans to build almost 200 additional mosques.

Within Germany, a fierce debate is taking place about the strictures of Islamic law, especially regarding the status of women. A series of so-called honour killings have focused the issue, and the practice of arranged marriage is receiving media attention.

The German constitution safeguards religious freedom, and also grants every religious denomination the right to build dedicated places of worship.

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