SLOVENIA: Why Can't Muslims Build Mosques?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 25 April 2002

Despite being recognised as one of Slovenia's 31 religious communities and having tens of thousands of adherents, the country's Muslim community has been unable to build a single mosque. Muslim leader Mufti Osman Djogic complained to Keston News Service that for 30 years authorities in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana have blocked the building of an Islamic centre and that the current mosque is so small that only 300 of the estimated thousand who attend regular Friday prayers can fit in. "During Ramadan, when up to 5,000 Muslims come to pray, it is so traumatic - unless you arrive an hour early you cannot get in." However, the head of the government's Office for Religious Communities has denied to Keston that there is any ban on the construction of mosques. "I don't agree they're not able to build," Drago Cepar insisted. "They have their houses to pray." But Slovenia's ombudsman, Matjaz Hanzek, complained to Keston of the "ping-pong of words" over the issue, which he believes is rooted in prejudice against Muslims. He declared that officials both at a national and local level lack the political will to solve the problem.

All of Slovenia's 13 Muslim communities registered with the local authorities have mosques, but all are buildings purchased by the community and adapted for worship rather than purpose-built mosques. Many of them are registered with the planning authorities as business premises, Djogic told Keston from Ljubljana on 24 April, as local authorities have obstructed the purchase and remodelling of buildings for Muslim worship. "The authorities are reluctant to approve our buildings, perhaps because of misconceptions about Muslims." He cited the case of the community in the town of Trbovlje, east of Ljubljana, which had been seeking a building for ten years and only got permission last November when it submitted an application in the name of a business association.

"I can't say we have big problems, except in Ljubljana," Djogic declared. "Although some of the mosques elsewhere are too small and we would like to have proper mosques, our main concern is to be able to build an Islamic Centre in Ljubljana." The centre is planned to contain a mosque, classrooms, a restaurant, a shop and library.

Speaking to Keston from Ljubljana on 19 April, Cepar did eventually admit that the Muslim community has problems gaining planning permission, but believed this will be resolved. "I don't think it is because of popular prejudice," he maintained. "They are not the only religious community with problems - some other religious communities, even the Catholics, have had problems gaining planning permission." And he insisted: "Slovenia has never adopted any decision whatsoever to prohibit construction of places of worship or prayer, or buildings for any religious community. On the contrary, our Constitution guarantees equal rights for all religious groups."

Cepar said responsibility for approving mosque building lay with local authorities. "According to our legislation local authorities are competent bodies for the majority of decisions on city development and construction planning, on which possibilities to construct different buildings depend," Cepar told Keston. "The legal procedures to get construction permission are in fact by no means simple for anyone, especially in cities. Information about them might be a field where our office could help."

Mufti Djogic agrees that building anything in Ljubljana is difficult, but believes obstruction over the Islamic Centre goes beyond what other building projects have encountered. He reported that the city council discussed the proposed Islamic Centre on 20 May 2001 and identified the district of Vic as a potential site. "It was then put out to public consultation, which was supposed to finish by September 2001," Djogic noted. "But even today - nearly a year after the council discussed it - consultation has still not been completed. Mayor Viktorija Potocnik wrote to me saying this was part of the normal process. I wouldn't call it a normal process when this has been going on for 30 years."

City council officials reject allegations that they are blocking the construction of the mosque in Vic district. "The procedure is still running," Zdenka Simonovic, deputy head of international relations at the council, insisted to Keston on 25 April. "It is not that they can't build - there is no opposition from the city of Ljubljana. It is just a question of urban planning and location." However, one of her colleagues admitted off the record about the building application: "I understand why you find it strange."

Djogic visited ombudsman Hanzek on 22 March to discuss the difficulties building the Ljubljana Islamic Centre. Hanzek then telephoned Mayor Potocnik and wrote to Cepar asking when the problems would be resolved. Hanzek complained to Keston that Cepar's response failed to give a "clear standpoint". Djogic says he also wrote to Cepar in April, but has yet to receive a response.

While recognising the Muslims' right to build mosques, Cepar said the central government cannot override local decision-making. "Government agencies have to avoid giving the impression of trying to make decisions in fields over which local authorities have legal authority or to try to interfere with the decisions of local governments." He viewed the role of his office as simply explaining to religious communities how to achieve their goals in accordance with the law, such as obtaining planning permission for places of worship.

Hanzek rejects Cepar's hands-off approach. "The role of the Office for Religious Communities is more extensive than Cepar maintains," he told Keston from Ljubljana on 25 April. "It defines an active role for the Office in solving problems facing a religious community, not just giving them explanations of how to achieve their goals."

Estimates of the number of Muslims in Slovenia - mainly those who migrated from Bosnia and Macedonia when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia or their descendants - vary from 30,000 to 100,000. The number of those who define themselves as Muslims will be known only when the full results are published of the national census conducted over the first half of April. The census included a question on religious affiliation in the wake of a Constitutional Court decision in March, despite protests from some quarters. Respondents were not required to answer the question.

"With the active role of the Ljubljana municipality on the local level and the Office for Religious Communities on the national level, the problem of the mosque could be solved faster and some prejudices could be overcome," ombudsman Hanzek told Keston. "We just want to be treated like any other religious community," Djogic declared. "We are Slovenian citizens and have rights. We should be able to buy land and build - it's not illegal." (END)