A version of a feature published in EU Observer
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Resistance is gearing up in Bucharest against a giant mosque proposed for the city and financed by Turkey, as part of its push to build huge religious centres in major global cities.
The Romanian Government has handed over for free 11,000 sqm of terrain next to the exhibition centre ‘Romexpo’, with a market value of 3.9 million Euro, to the Mufti of Romania, Murat Yusuf.
On the site, the Government of Turkey will finance the building of a mosque, initially called “the largest in a European capital”.
“Our purpose is to build a mosque for all the Muslims in Bucharest to come together,” the Mufti tells me. “We will attract all Muslims to pray in our mosque.”
But strident opposition to the project comes from a mix of Romanian intellectuals, ex-President Traian Basescu, extreme-right groups and some Muslims.
“The construction of this mosque is a political decision made between the Romanian and Turkish Governments,” says Ruxandra Fatma Yilmaz, a doctorate student in Islam in Europe at Bucharest’s National School of Political Science (SNSPA).
“It does not come from the Muslim community. Many from the Muslim community were surprised at the decision.”
A protest movement “We don’t want a mega-mosque in Bucharest” has exploded with over 12,000 likes on Facebook, organised by far-right group Noua Dreapta (New Right).
They argue there is no demand for the mosque and this is a “political” move borne out of Turkish expansionism.
One organiser, Vlad Cantacuzino, tells me the protest is not against “Islam or the Muslim community”.
However Noua Dreapta argues the mosque is not designed for Romanian Muslims, but for the millions of immigrants who will come to the country, potentially scaremongering the population about the possible effect of a religious buliding.
At a protest on 20 July, attended by hundreds, Noua Dreapta demanded the Government opens a “democratic process” including an open and public discussion followed by a referendum at city level.
Such a plebiscite is likely to produce a negative result. Romanian newspaper Gandul ran an Internet survey, attracting 10,000 visitors – which found 92 per cent of respondents were against the mosque.
In reaction to these figures, the Mufti tells me he respects people’s opinions, but “once we start to build the mosque, they will see that it will benefit all Romanian society.”
At first, Mufti Murat Yusuf called the mosque “the largest in a European capital”.
But now he states he was not talking about “physical size”, but more about a theoretical size. He says the mosque will serve between 1,000 and 1,500 worshipers, making it the largest in Romania, but smaller than similar mosques under construction in Russia and Albania.
No final design is ready, but legally it must be finished by 2018. There is no certain figure on the cost. But judging by the construction costs of other mega-mosques Turkey is building in east Europe, this could be up to ten million Euro.
Now the Mufti is in discussion with the Turkish Government to secure financing. If this does not work, he tells me that he hopes the Romanian government will help fund the project.
The Bucharest mosque is the culmination of 11 years of talks and promises between the Romanian and Turkish states.
In return, Romania requested the construction of a new Orthodox Church in Istanbul.
Ex-foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu, who was present at talks with then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009, says the deal was a ‘mutual exchange’ of religious buildings.
But although there was the political will at the top level to follow through on this plan, he says administrative issues stopped the process.
This year the Government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta revived the deal – but with a difference. The church project in Istanbul has been shelved because it is “not allowed under Turkish law”, Ponta stated on 15 July.
In the place of a new church in Istanbul, Romania will build a hotel for pilgrims visiting one of the major seats of eastern Orthodoxy.
But Ponta’s statement is inaccurate.
There is no law against the establishment of churches in Turkey, as in January this year, the Syriac Orthodox community gained approval to construct a 1.5 million church of the Virgin Mary in Yesilkoy, Istanbul.
Diaconescu tells me the issue of the ‘mutual exchange’ of a mosque-for-a-church should have been solved before the Government presented the new mosque project.
This imbalance of gain from the deal means that Romania is perceived to have lost out.
If it had been clear that this was a straight swap between countries, Diaconescu says that public opinion “would not have questioned” the decision.
The Istanbul Knee Mystery
The mosque announcement emerged during Prime Minister Ponta’s month-long sojourn in Turkey recuperating from knee surgery, reportedly sustained in a basketball accident.
The sudden departure came days after Ponta was questioned by Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Department (DNA), which is investigating claims that he was involved in money laundering and tax evasion.
Among the conspiracy-hungry Romanian population, the simultaneity of the mosque announcement and Ponta’s mysterious visit to the Bosphorus generated some suspicion.
But the Prime Minister’s office told me that Ponta did not discuss with any Turkish authorities or religious figures about the mosque project while in Turkey.
Fear of extremes
The Romanian press has talked up the potential threat of Islam extremism due to the development of such a large mosque project in Bucharest.
However the Mufti believes a new mosque will tackle potential extremist teaching in the Romanian capital.
“We need a mosque to keep on a check on all religious activity,” he tells me. “In Bucharest there are many mosques and we don’t know what the Imams preach there.”
There are four registered mosques and 13 of what the Mufti calls “illegal” mosques, as they are not authorised by his office. His aim is to centralise much of the teaching with a mix of Romanian, Arabic and Turkish languages.
“We will show to all Muslims [in Bucharest] that we have a bigger mosque and that the others are illegal,” he says.
However the plan has also roused nationalistic sympathies which border on the radical. A poster on the site of “We don’t want a mega-mosque in Bucharest” uses an image of a giant Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist brandishing a rocket launcher looming over the Romanian Parliament.
It has also incited concern that Turkey has neo-colonial attitudes on the Romanian territories. Large parts of today’s Romania paid tributes to the Ottoman Empire from 1400 onwards and won a war of independence against Ottoman influence in 1878.
“The official Turkish policy of the last ten years sees the Ottoman period as glorious, not just for Turkey but for all its provinces,” says Cantacuzino. “Turkey is free to believe so, but we as a a nation have a much more negative memory of that period. We see it as highly offensive.”
At a protest on 20 July participants, including young football supporters, chanted “Romania must not be under the Pasha of the Turks!” to mass cheering.
But Diaconescu does not believe the mosque will create a new wave of anti-Turkish sentiment due to the 19th century historical precedent. When I raise the issue with him, he switches to English and states:
“Let’s just forget about it.”
Indeed, far right groups are focusing less on the history of Turkey and Romania to give fuel to their opposition, and more on the potential threat of Muslim immigration.
The protest event on 20 July was attended by far right partner organisation to Noua Dreapta, Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko “The People’s Party Our Slovakia”.
Muscle-bound activists took to the streets of the capital, brandishing their large green flags of their anti-immigrant and Christian movement.
The party’s leader Marian Kotleba spoke in Slovakian, through translation.
“Europe is inundated with immigrants from Asia and Africa,” he said. “In Brussels, they don’t respect the views of the people and they open the door to immigrants.”
Then he added: “Slovakia is the only country in Europe without a mosque”.
The crowd reacted with cheers and ‘Bravo’.
Kotleba also argued that Romania must defend Christian values against the “Turkish thieves”.
Noua Dreapta President Tudor Ionescu then gave a speech in which he defended the rights of the Muslims currently living in Romania.
But he argued that the new mosque is not for them – “but for the millions of immigrants who will enter Romania in the next ten years”.
He repeated the mantra several times, citing the recent European Commission’s proposals that member states should receive a quota of immigrants attempting to enter the EU, following a rise in migrant deaths from Africa in the Mediterranean.
But the Mufti refutes this claim.
He tells me the mosque is “for the people of Bucharest, not from other places”.
However this rhetoric has caused some concern that the mosque could amplify anti-Islamic feelings, which have not existed in Romania before.
“A problem is that public debate today, alas, has a temptation to induce tension,” says ex-foreign minister Diaconescu, “and the Muslim community in Romania has been extremely peaceful. There has been an absence of any form of polemic.”
But he does not believe that extremism will flare up following the mosque plan.
“Members of the extreme right are very few in Romania – and their resonance in society is non-existent,” he says.
Instead, there is a concern that there may not be a massive appetite for such a mosque.
Romania has around 64,000 Muslims, with the vast majority living around the port of Constanta. An estimated 10,000 are in Bucharest, including converts, ethnic Turks, businesspeople and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, spread wide across a city of two million people.
“The Muslim community in Bucharest is very fragmented. This is the reality of Islam. There are many groups. It’s like a mosaic,” says Yilmaz.
With over five mosques in the city and numerous prayer rooms, Yilmaz says there is a risk the new mosque will be “empty” because no one will go.
Mega mosque bonanza
The Bucharest move is part of Turkey’s frenzy of financing international religious centres. A 100 million USD mega-mosque has opened in Lanham, Maryland, close to Washington DC, co-financed by the Turks.
But the largest number of giant mosques are proposed for east Europe and central Asia.
In the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali there is a plan for a mega mosque for 1,500 worshipers, gifted from Turkey to the city.
In May this year Erdogan laid the foundation stone on a new 30 million Euro mosque in Tirana, Albania, which the Turkish state is financing for a 20,000 capacity, a centre it calls “the biggest in the Balkans”.
In the same month, a design emerged of a possible mega mosque for Budapest, Hungary, financed by Turkey.
The city mayor István Tarlós confirmed the question of a mosque “has been raised” with officials at the Turkish Embassy, but they have not yet found a suitable location.
Meanwhile in Istanbul itself works are going on to build a giant mosque, in Camlica, on a hill on the Anatolian shore with a capacity of 30,000 and visible from the entire city.
In February, during a visit to Cuba, Erdogan also proposed the construction of a mosque in Havana.
However there is tough competition.
Saudi Arabia is also planning a mosque on the secular and communist Caribbean island.
Additional reporting: Zeynep Sentek