Experts worry years of waiting is taking a toll and may radicalise those demanding more space to worship.
By Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 15/08/11
Hundreds have gathered for the prayer protest in Pristina. [Reuters]
Every Friday they gather in the streets in front of the Stone Mosque near parliament, their public prayers a form of protest. The Muslims are demanding the construction of a larger mosque in the city centre, close to the Catholic cathedral and Orthodox church.
The cathedral was built in the five years since Muslims first made their request, while the Orthodox church went up during Milosevic's rule in the 1990's.
Nexhmije Hasani-Gashi, head of the Inter-Faith Dialogue Initiative in Kosovo, is sympathetic. "Kosovo Albanian Muslims have been always recognised as people who co-exist with different religions … Since 2006, they have requested a new mosque, something which has been ignored by UNMIK and the mayors," he tells SETimes.
The Bashkohu Movement, led by Fuad Ramiqi, has been organising the protests, which on February 24th turned into clashes with the police, who had moved in demanding that the protestors stop blocking traffic. Bashkohu explains there are simply not enough places where Muslims, the overwhelming majority in Pristina, can pray.
"For 12 years we've prayed outside in extreme temperatures, in the cold, in rain and snow waiting for the politicians at both the central and local level to realise our demands," Ramiqi told Deutsche Welle.
"This has caused groups outside the Islamic Community to take actions, like the protests, which might radicalise if their legal and rightful request is not taken into account," warned Hasani-Gashi.
In one such case, after Friday prayers on June 24th, a more radical group illegally placed columns for the construction of the mosque opposite the cathedral in the centre courtyard of the university campus, which were later removed by police.
The Islamic Community of Kosovo has issued a statement distancing itself from the protests by Bashkohu and other groups, announcing instead that it is working with the mayor to find a possible location.
The Islamic Community has appealed for patience on the matter and promised that the issue would be resolved through institutional channels.
A municipality of Pristina spokesman told SETimes that the municipality "will decide in co-operation with the Islamic Community of Kosovo a possible location for the construction of the mosque".
The issue has been highlighted recently amid concerns it may damage Kosovo's orientation towards the West. But Hasani-Gashi disagrees.
"Such an initiative will not harm relations with the US or EU as some argue, because Prime Minister Thaci, who considers himself the most pro-European politician in Kosovo, promised last year during the elections to build the mosque."
She says it would be "absurd" to think the initiative would harm relations with the US, given a drive under way to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, where the Twin Towers stood before the September 11th terror attacks.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, leader of the US-based Centre for Islamic Pluralism, has accused Ramiqi of links to radical Islamists after his arrest last year on the Mavi Marmara flotilla close to Gaza.
"Fuad Ramiqi is the representative in Kosovo of the European Muslim Network, a fundamentalist organisation headed by the Egyptian-born, Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the academic Tariq Ramadan," Suleyman Schwartz wrote in a column.
Political parties have called for a resolution to the issue.
"The demands for a mosque cannot be turned into a black flag protest in downtown Pristina. It should be noted that this is not really the view of Kosovo," Alliance for the Future of Kosovo member Burim Ramadani said during a parliamentary session earlier this month.