Suspicious Germans visit mosque on open day
Cologne, Germany (dpa) – Seyda Can, 29, tightens the knot on her grey, flower-pattern head-scarf and begins explaining Islam to a group of Germans who have turned up for a free tour of the mosque.
It is Open Mosque Day in Germany.
Despite Ramadan fasting, the Muslim community was working Wednesday to counter the perception among many Germans that Islam is a danger.
The body language of some of listeners is plain: their arms are folded, an attitude of scepticism. Others listen more sympathetically as Can explains some basics of Islam, standing in the car park outside the mosque in Cologne.
She is on the staff of DITIB, a Turkish agency that builds mosques throughout Germany.
Cologne is a battleground for DITIB, with civic officials and residents rudely criticizing plans for construction of a bigger mosque with 55-metre minarets.
A married couple, both 65, say they only know about the Cologne debate from reading about it in the newspapers.
They have brought along a camera and are curious to see in the flesh how Muslims worship. “I don’t think we should express an opinion till after we’ve seen for ourselves,” says the wife as the tour starts.
Ferdinand Brune, 60, already has an opinion. He has obtained a German translation of the Koran and written down at home all the objectionable verses he could find.
“There are places where it calls for violence against the infidels. I find that pretty scary,” he said.
Brune, a building technology engineer and member of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, said he was going to meet the Muslim clergy and challenge them with their own holy book.
When he did, an imam patiently told him that Koran has to be read as a whole and cannot be interpreted by taking single statements out of context.
He said Mohammed had never waged a war of attack, but had only fought in self-defence. Brune nods politely, and lets the answer stand, without saying whether or not he has been convinced.
Outside the prayer hall, the visitors all take off their shoes without complaint and lay them in shelves. The pillared hall, with room for 1,000 faithful, is lit by 15 chandeliers and has a security camera over the entrance.
Spherical loud-speakers hang from the ceiling and black-and-red mats cover the entire floor.
“We kneel here five times a day, men and women separately, while the imam reads verses aloud from the Koran in Arabic,” Can explains to the visitors as she distributes cards with Koran extracts in German on them.
Because it is Ramadan, the tea room and the vegetable shop at the mosque are empty and closed until nightfall.
Instead the visitors are shown the youth centre, which has room for 300, and the library, where the six tables and the odd assortment of chairs are empty today.
“It’s normally very busy in here,” says Can in the room packed with books.
She finishes the tour by showing the visitors the drawings for the new mosque.
“I think the size of the building is far too big,” opines one woman among the visitors. Many Cologne people contend that the mosque is alien and will dominate the skyline.
Can replies, “But during Ramadan, the existing mosque is packed to overflowing. We have far more than 1,000 people praying at a time.
“Temporarily we’ve had to convert the young people’s gym in the basement into a supplementary prayer room.”
Most of the visitors admit they did not know that, and soften their attitude to the plans.
Brune, the centre-right engineer, is no longer at the mosque to join in the discussion, having left early.
A German girl who is in a history of the Islamic world course at university says she is impressed by the soberness of Islam and praises the Cologne Muslims’ plans.
“We have all our magnificent churches in Cologne. So why shouldn’t they have a grand house of worship too?” she says.
The older Cologne man, 65, voices his suspicions differently after the tour.
“It has probably made me a bit more tolerant,” he says. “But I still have this unpleasant sense that these people are trying to get a foot in the door and take over our place.”