Arts, Culture & Media

Battle Over Kosovo Mosque

A new mosque for a growing number of worshippers might not sound like such a troublesome issue in the capital of a predominately Muslim country.

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But in Kosovo, a group of devout Muslims is increasingly fed up because it says authorities aren't moving fast enough let to it build a new place of worship.

The group's tactics, which have included holding outdoor prayers and blocking city streets, are drawing condemnation from even a top Muslim leader. The movement also is stirring fears that radical Islam is trying to gain a foothold in Kosovo.

At Friday afternoon prayers on the edge of Pristina's old Ottoman quarter, several hundred men and boys bow in devotion to God. But they're not inside a mosque. They're across the street from one, assembled in a square, with dozens of TV cameras trained on them. While the prayers and rituals are nothing out of the ordinary, their message is decidedly political.

Fatos Rexhepi told the crowd that Pristina's observant Muslims are being neglected.

"We deserve a place to pray and do our obligations, which God has given us," Rexhepi said. "We will never stop praying just so people stop calling us radicals or terrorists."

Rexhepi heads a group of devout Muslims called Bashkohu, or "Come Together." He and his supporters say Pristina's 22 mosques cannot accommodate everyone who wants to pray on Fridays and holidays.

Armend Bajrami is a university of Prishtina student. "Most of the population of Kosovo is Muslim, and there's not enough space for us," he said.

Bajrami, like other protesters, is asking the city government to allocate a parcel of land for a large central mosque. People are also frustrated that Pristina's religious Muslims are without a prominent central place of worship, while a large Catholic cathedral is being built in downtown.

Protester Samir Rexhepi said that's unfair.

"We as Muslim people feel discriminated against," Rexhepi said, "because Catholics make up an estimated 3 percent of Kosovo's population, whereas about 90 percent are Muslim."

What Bashkohu wants isn't especially controversial. Kosovo is, after all, a largely Muslim country. But the group's methods haven't gone over well. Protesters have blocked major intersections and some supporters have scuffled with police, drawing widespread condemnation.

"They do not officially represent the Islam here – this is one of the most important things," said Xhabar Haliti, a professor of religion at the University of Prishtina. "We should not let them lead the Islamic issues here in our country."

Haliti said Kosovo's capital does need a new mosque for growing numbers of worshippers. In fact, it was the general Islamic community that requested the land for the building in the first place, and city officials have agreed to it in principle.

But Haliti said the protesters are manufacturing confrontation to increase the footprint of a more radical form of Islam. He said they're being goaded on by foreign-based organizations.

"We have had a problem and we are having a problem with these kind of NGOs, with some of the leaders of these NGOs, who want to make the way of the interpretation as it was previous in our country," he said.

Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, flooded Kosovo to help rebuild after the war ended in 1999. They included Muslim charities, some of them suspect. Just last year, Kosovo police arrested members of a Muslim aid group and seized guns and body armor. The suspects reportedly were Wahhabis, followers of a devout Muslim sect with origins in Saudi Arabia.

Haliti said if Bashkohu and its supporters were out of the picture, the new mosque could be a shining symbol of a tolerant Islam that he said has thrived in Kosovo for the past 600 years.

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