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In Germany, construction of mosque fuels rift between two faiths

Catholics fear culture's dilution

COLOGNE, Germany -- On Muslim holidays, hundreds of faithful hoping to pray at the city's Ditib Mosque are forced to spread their prayer rugs in a nearby parking lot and follow the service on loudspeakers. The mosque holds only 600 people.

Yet plans to replace the flat-roofed storefront mosque with a new house of worship, complete with dome and two 177-foot-tall minarets, have triggered an angry response from right-wing groups and, most recently, Cologne's Roman Catholic archbishop.

Mehmet Orman, 43, a Turkish immigrant who prays every night at Ditib Mosque, ignoring its broken windows and worn-out prayer rugs, said he hopes construction can begin, as scheduled, by the end of the year.

"There are 2.7 million Turks in Germany -- of course we need a big, representative mosque in this country," Orman said.

Construction of mosques in Europe has rarely happened without much hand-wringing.

In France, the scene of riots in largely Muslim and African suburbs in 2005, and in Britain, where two terror plots have been discovered in recent weeks , there have also been protests against the building of new mosques.

But in Cologne, which has such a prominent Catholic heritage that Pope Benedict XVI has dubbed it the "Rome of the north," the project has stirred deep passions.

Last month, dozens of right-wing extremists from all over Germany, Austria, and Belgium demonstrated against construction of the mosque, saying the building would "fortify the Muslims' claim to power in Christian Europe," as the demonstration's organizer, Manfred Rouhs, put it.

Rouhs heads the right-wing Pro Cologne movement, which has collected 18,000 signatures from local residents who are against the disputed mosque. The building will be located in an immigrant neighborhood with Turkish tea houses, kebab restaurants, and gold jewelry stores.

Opposition to the mosque has also built up in the center of German society. Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, said in a widely publicized interview on Deutschlandfunk radio that the construction of the mosque would make him "feel unwell" and the "immigration of Muslims has created a breach in our German, European culture."

Meisner's words have significance in Cologne, which is one of Germany's most devoutly Roman Catholic cities. It is famous for its 750-year-old cathedral with its two 515-foot landmark steeples and 12 Romanesque churches.

Mehmet Yildirim, director of a Turkish-Islamic umbrella group for 700 German mosques called Ditib, called the objections racist and insulting.

"We shouldn't have to justify ourselves that we need a house for prayer in Germany," Yildirim, 56, said in an interview at Ditib's headquarters in Cologne.

The dispute further escalated when Ralph Giordano, a prominent German writer and Jewish Holocaust survivor, demanded that the mosque not be built and declared the integration of Muslim immigrants a failure because Germans and Muslim immigrants were living in parallel societies.

"I don't want to meet burqas and chadors on German streets nor do I want to hear the call of the muezzin from towering minarets," Giordano, 84, wrote in a commentary for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily.

Giordano said he has received six phoned death threats from Turks as a result.

The 48,000-square-foot mosque would be one of the biggest in Germany, with space for up to 2,000 worship ers, an Islamic library, facilities for cultural events, and several stores.

The construction would cost between $20 million and $40 million and will be financed mostly by private donations.

About 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, with 70 percent of them originally from Turkey. While the city has not yet issued the final building permit, many city council members are in favor of the project, said Marlis Bredehorst, Cologne's official for integration.

"It is important that the Muslims here get dignified houses of prayer -- they are part of our society," Bredehorst said.

"Two hundred years ago, the Protestants had to pray secretively in Catholic Cologne -- that is something we can't imagine anymore today."