- - Wednesday, August 12, 2015

BUCHAREST, Romania — The government’s support for the construction of a huge Turkish-funded mosque and cultural center in the capital has sparked an unexpected anti-Muslim backlash in this formerly communist country, with some worrying that the project will open the door to Islamic extremism.

“The mosque will become a place of recruitment for radical Islamists, a breeding ground for terrorists,” said Tudor Ionescu, the leader of the far-right Noua Dreapta party. “Many attacks are happening. How can we not imagine that they will reach us someday?”

Western European nations have long struggled to assimilate large and often disaffected Muslim populations, balancing religious freedom with security and cultural concerns. The mosque debate here suggests that struggle may soon be coming to European Union countries farther east.

Late last month, Romanian officials signed a deal with the Romanian mufti’s office to build a mosque for 1,000 worshippers, an Islamic library and a community center on 37,000 square feet of city-owned land in northern Bucharest. The land is being provided for the project for free, with Turkey financing the construction.

The project’s proponents have yet to produce designs or fix a budget for construction, but the property is valued at around $4.2 million. Turkey has already pledged financing for the campus, which planners hope to open in three years.

And since the project was announced earlier this year, outrage over it has been mounting, say local officials.

Mufti Murat Iusuf, leader of Romania’s approximately 64,000 Muslims, less than 1 percent of the country’s population, was caught flat-footed by the anger. He thought Romanians would accept the project after he announced its development and its foreign funding. The country is the second-poorest in the European Union.

“I thought about the good of my country,” said Mufti Iusuf.

Instead, the announcement has stirred intense resentment and unease in a country that was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to Turkey, for five centuries until the late 1800s.

“Perhaps you can not imagine a subway station in Bucharest, at peak hours, when a young believer detonates himself in the name of Allah,” wrote former Romanian President Traian Basescu in a Facebook post railing against the project.

Many especially viewed Turkey’s offer of funding for the mosque with suspicion. Ankara has been underwriting new buildings and preservation work on Ottoman-era sites in the Balkans for years in a bid to resuscitate its image in a region where the sultans of Istanbul once held sway. Turkey is currently spending around $33 million on a new Islamic Center in Tirana, Albania, for example, with a capacity of 20,000 that would reportedly be the biggest in the Balkans.

Other Turkish-financed mosque/religious center projects include one just outside Washington, D.C., in Lanham, Maryland, and a mosque that could serve 1,500 worshippers in the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali.

That campaign has yielded dividends, at least to judge from the results in Romania.

In the last decade, Romanians appear to be more open to embracing their eastern heritage: Fast-food kebab vendors and Turkish fine dining are now common in the center of Bucharest. Turkish soap operas and music are popular too.

Turkey is the most important commercial partner for Romania outside the EU. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Bucharest in April, the countries agreed to increase bilateral trade to $10 billion within the next five years.

‘Symbolic conquest’

But to Mr. Ionescu and his supporters, the mosque is going too far.

“Turkey attempts a symbolic conquest of Europe through these mosques,” he said, adding that he and his supporters might try to block the project through the city’s planning process. “I don’t know why we are the recipients of such a ‘blessing.’”

Noua Dreapta recently organized a protest against the project at University Square in downtown, where a throng of party members and others chanted, “Romania is not a Turkish province.” The mosque, the party argues, isn’t meant for the capital’s small Muslim population but for hordes of illegal immigrants who plan to come in the years ahead.

Criticism has been bubbling among Romanian Muslims too.

A Muslim leader who asked to remain anonymous said he was never consulted on the project. He was skeptical of Turkey’s intentions and couldn’t understand why Ankara wanted to help Romanian Muslims.

“We heard about it on TV, like everyone else,” he said. “We are Romanian Muslims, but now the Turkish are coming and they get the land. When they will complete the building, they won’t even allow us there. So we are sold, thrown out.”

Backing the Romanian protests has been the far-right People’s Party of Slovakia, whose leader, Marian Kotleba, was cheered at a Bucharest protest last month when he noted Slovakia is “the only country in Europe without a mosque.”

“Europe is inundated with immigrants from Asia and Africa. In Brussels, they don’t respect the views of the people and they open the door to immigrants,” Mr. Kotleba said, according to a report in the EUObserver.com.

Around 10,000 Muslims live in Bucharest. Five mosques operate in the Romanian capital. The oldest was built in 1906. Different Islamic organizations built the other four after the fall of communism in the late 1980s.

Mufti Iusuf is crestfallen about the controversy.

“It is my right, as a Romanian citizen, to get land where I can build a place of worship in the capital,” he said. “It also benefits the Romanian state, which can control the religious activity inside. If this project will bring any harm to Romanian citizens, we will withdraw it.”

The mosque’s defenders, saying the project has become a test of the country’s religious tolerance, haven’t had much success in changing the public’s mind. Local newspaper polls say that more than 85 percent of the public opposes the project.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta said the mosque was a symbol of Romania’s acceptance of the Muslim community.

“I’m sorry that in our country there are still irresponsible people playing with so sensitive and important things such as peace, respect and interfaith solidarity,” said Mr. Ponta in a statement.

Others said that protesters fearful of Islamic extremism were being counterproductive in their opposition to the project.

“Religiously integrated in the mentality of a peaceful Islam, it will be harder for them to be drawn into extremism supported by quasi-clandestine characters that might appear in our country,” said State Secretary for Religious Affairs Victor Opaschi, referring to Romanian Muslims.

The Romanian Orthodox Church supports the mosque project. But its leaders have called on Turkey to grant them property in Istanbul for an Orthodox pilgrim center, including a chapel. The government has taken the church’s request into consideration, and Turkey has nominally agreed, but it’s not clear if Romanian leaders can secure space in Istanbul.

“The Romanian state is the one negotiating — the church is not involved in this dialogue,” said church spokesperson Constantin Stoica, adding that Ankara has been less accommodating than Romanian officials. “In Romania, the negotiations for the mosque were faster.”

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