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Report warns of rising 'Islamophobia'

Discrimination cited in Europe

Muslim girls attended class in the Austrian province of Tyrol last month. A reports says "many European Muslims, particularly young people, face barriers to their social advancement." (Kerstin Joensson/associated press)

VIENNA, Austria -- A German Muslim says his neighbors suspect he is making weapons in his mosque.

An Austrian believer complains some dog owners set their pets on her when they pass her on the sidewalk.

Such acts of "Islamophobia" are on the rise across Europe, where many Muslims are menaced and misunderstood -- some on a daily basis -- the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia warned yesterday in a new report.

The Vienna-based center, which tracks ethnic and religious bias across the 25-nation EU, said Muslims routinely suffer acts ranging from physical attacks to discrimination in the job and housing markets.

It called on leaders to strengthen policies on integration, and on Muslims to "engage more actively in public life" to counter negative perceptions driven by terrorism or violence, such as this year's backlash to cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

"The key word is respect, " said Beate Winkler, the group's director. "People need to feel respected and included. We need to highlight the common ground that we have."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, many of Europe's nearly 13 million Muslims feel "they have been put under a general suspicion of terrorism," Winkler said.

The 117-page report reinforces a growing urgency to confront religious tensions in Europe.

In Turkey this month, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for greater understanding between Christianity and Islam and sought to ease Muslim outrage over his remarks in September that cited a medieval emperor speaking about violence and Mohammed's teachings.

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain called tolerance one of the "essential values" of his nation and denounced "hatemongers, whatever their race, religion, or creed."

Although the center conceded it is hampered by spotty data that makes Islamophobic acts "underreported and underrecorded," it listed hundreds of cases of violence or threats against Muslims in the EU since 2004.

The examples include vandalism against mosques and Islamic centers, abuse against women wearing Islamic head scarves, and attacks such as one by a gang carrying baseball bats emblazoned with swastikas and racist slogans that targeted a Somali family in Denmark.

Muslims are often "disproportionately represented" in unemployment statistics, and many lag behind the European mainstream in education and housing conditions, the report says.

It cites a 2004 study by the University of Paris, which replied to 258 job advertisements for a sales position and concluded that an applicant with a North African background was five times less likely to get a positive reply.

"Many European Muslims, particularly young people, face barriers to their social advancement. This could give rise to a feeling of hopelessness and social exclusion," said the report, adding that many Muslims feel pressured to lose their Islamic identity.

Carla Amina Baghajati, a German-born convert to Islam who serves as spokeswoman for Austria's Islamic community, said she was unnerved by inflammatory comments posted on Web forums yesterday suggesting Muslims have brought their troubles upon themselves.

"We have to be very careful that making Islamophobia a general issue is not counterproductive," she said.

"There's the danger that people say, 'Well, he deserves it.' We have to create a climate that makes it possible to overcome prejudice and racism without showing Muslims as victims."

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