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Minarets raise questions for Austrians too

(Reuters)

The construction of minarets is controversial not just in Switzerland – where a vote on the issue takes place in November – but also in neighbouring Austria.

Yet Austria is unique in western Europe in that Islam has been a recognised religion in the country for more than 100 years, since the time when the Habsburg empire was also home to Bosnians.

But there were few Muslims living in what is now Austria. The first mosque, in Vienna, dates back only to 1979 and owes its existence to Muslim immigration following the Second World War.

Since then the Muslim population has almost trebled, and the demand for more mosques has grown – along with resistance from rightwing parties.

"Pummerin instead of muezzin" was the slogan adopted by Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom Party in the most recent Viennese election. The large bell on St Stephen's cathedral should not have to compete against calls to prayer from minarets, he argued.

Strache has also demanded that the Austrian parliament pass a ban on minaret construction that would enter the country's constitution, something which has yet to happen, although the party has gone from strength to strength in recent elections.

The other far-right party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, founded by ex-Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider, has also taken up the fight against Islam and minarets.

In many Länder the party is calling for tighter building regulations, to prevent local character being spoilt through the construction of Muslim places of prayer. The reason is always that "in Christian Europe visible signs of the strength of Islam" should not be permitted.

Until now none of Austria's nine Länder has changed its law in this respect, but the pressure of rightwing parties has had an effect.

Hidden minaret

The minaret on the Vienna Hubertusdamm mosque reaches 32 metres into the sky, but hardly anyone notices it any more. When Austria's oldest mosque was built 30 years ago, the then mayor, Leopold Graz, praised it as a symbol of Vienna's desire to be "a welcoming and friendly home to all people who live and work here".

The construction of the second mosque on Austrian soil, in Telfs in the Tirol, was more problematic. Residents lodged complaints against the 20-metre construction, signatures were collected and the Freedom Party threatened to take the issue to the administrative court.

After lengthy negotiation, it was agreed that the building would not be higher than 15m and there would be no call to prayer. The mosque finally opened in 2006.

The country's third mosque is being built in Bad Vöslau, in Lower Austria. Here too the building application provoked a storm of protest, although it fully complied with regulations. Agreement was ultimately reached on a symbolic minaret: two low structures attached to the back of the mosque roof.

Proven need

Some 400,000 Muslims live in Austria – almost five per cent of the total population. For the president of the Islamic community, Anas Schakfeh, it is clear that there is a need for more mosques.

There are 200 prayer rooms, but these are seen as no substitute for mosques.

Islam dictates that a mosque should stand on land that belongs to the Islamic community and should be open for prayer five times a day and for Friday prayers.

But theology does not require mosques to have minarets; this is a tradition, a symbol of the presence of Muslims.

Joe Schelbert, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from German by Morven McLean)

Minaret initiative

A minaret initiative was handed in to the government in July 2008 after more than the required 100,000 signatures were collected. The text is only one sentence long: "The building of minarets is forbidden."

The government's response, calling on the electorate to reject it, was much longer, running to 50 pages. In essence, the cabinet argues that the prohibition of the spires, usually found outside mosques, would violate international human rights norms. It also said that a ban would hinder integration and would be ineffective in the fight against extremism.

The Swiss population will vote on the issue on November 29.

The country's Muslim community says it is stunned by what it sees as an "Islamophobic" move, which it warns will undermine already fragile relations.

Both the Protestant and Catholic churches have rallied to their defence, along with most political parties, human rights experts and a number of cabinet ministers.

In Switzerland, only the mosques in Geneva, Zurich and Wangen near Olten have a minaret, Winterthur's mosque only has a small one. But the call to prayer is not made from these minarets.

Building applications for minarets in at least two other towns, Langenthal and Wil, led to heated debates at the local level.

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