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Minarets Rise in Germany

A surge in the building of mosques is another sign of the transforming power of immigration. But the Islamic centers of faith also prompt fear.

March 17, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The chink and scrape of stonecutters echo through the gray-domed mosque that rises like a glimmer of misplaced architecture in a city where the Muslim call to prayer is a widening whisper.

Dusted in marble, workmen scurry in the muted glow of stained glass. Some paint Koranic verses on the walls; others make last-minute alterations to golden-tipped minarets pricking a drizzly skyline. Anxious Berliners sometimes peek into the courtyard, where Ali Gulcek, a husky, nimble man, assures them his religion is not a threat.

"I need to enlighten the Germans so their prejudice of Islam will go away," said Gulcek, whose Islamic organization is building the mosque. "Our mosque will be completed in May. We've wanted a legitimate mosque for so long. For years, we've been meeting in backyards and basements. We don't want to hide anymore."

Gulcek's mosque is part of the surge in Islamic construction sweeping Germany. The number of traditional mosques with their distinctive minarets nearly doubled in Germany from 77 in 2002 to 141 in 2003, according to Islam Archive, a Muslim research group in the city of Soest. An additional 154 mosques and cultural centers are planned, many of them in the countryside, where vistas are dotted with symbols of crescent moons and crosses.

Like the cultural battles over allowing Muslim women to wear headscarves in European schools, mosques are an indication that immigration is transforming social, religious and aesthetic landscapes. Staccato Turkish and throaty Arabic syllables whirl amid European vernaculars, and where once there was a German bakery there is now a Moroccan kebab stand. In some bookshops, the Koran is as prominent as the Bible, and Islamic worry beads sometimes rattle alongside rosaries.

Mosques are landmarks of faith. But in Europe they are also symbols of change that can instigate fear, especially as congregations at Christian churches steadily decline on a continent with the fastest-aging population in the world. A mosque often means a neighborhood is no longer what it was. Skin hues are darker, customs different, and society's failure at integration is laid bare.

For many Europeans since Sept. 11, mosques are perceived -- unlike churches or synagogues -- as caldrons of radicalism instead of places of worship. That sentiment is likely to endure if Islamic militants were involved last week's train bombings in Madrid that killed 201 people and wounded 1,500 others.

"Building a mosque won't create integration," said Werner Mueller, a pharmacist in a Berlin neighborhood where proposals for two mosques are encountering opposition from government agencies. "These new mosques will make Islam more visible, and jobless and angry Muslim men will go to them. They can become places infiltrated by political Islam."

Such sensitivity stems from the Al Quds mosque's link to Sept. 11: Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had regularly worshipped at the warren of rooms above a gym with smudged windows in Hamburg before they moved to the United States. Thousands of nondescript mosques, some tucked in alleys, others half-hidden in old factories, are scattered across Europe. There are nearly 2,400 in Germany alone, according to the Islam Archive.

The Berlin government is seeking more control over blueprints for larger mosques. The city's planning office wants veto power on all building projects that may impinge upon a borough's character. The veto proposal is expected to take effect this year and could complicate plans for four mosques in the city boroughs of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln. The government says it is not singling out mosques, but trying to bring uniformity to the skyline.

"Berlin has a large Turkish population," said Petra Reetz, a spokeswoman for the planning office. "That always has to be a consideration. But we are still a Central European town and we'd like to keep the face of a Central European town, not a Turkish town."

Such sentiments have made Mehmet Bayram a patient architect. The projects he treasures most, including mosques and Islamic cultural centers, are yet to be built, tangled in negotiations with government agencies. Bayram splices architecture, folding Islamic nuances into European designs to make Muslim edifices more palatable to the German eye. What could be considered minarets on the facade of one of his proposed cultural centers, for example, are instead spiraling stairwells.

Bayram described one project like this: "The main entrance gate has a European style, and on the third floor you will find Gothic arches. That is Christian architecture. The dome has a Turkish-Seldshuk form, and the little arches at the upper minarets are of Indian style.... It is my intent that the building's street level invites visitors to overcome their fears" about Islam.

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