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Feature 21 Jun 17

Belgrade Muslims Decry Lack of Mosques and Graveyards

The overnight demolition of an illegally-built mosque has highlighted difficulties the Muslim community faces in Serbian capital.

Filip Rudic

The municipal authorities of Zemun Polje demolished the mosque, saying it had been built without a permit.                              Photo: BIRN/Filip Rudic

“The conditions for practicing [Islam] are not too favourable. [Bajrakli mosque] is the only mosque in Belgrade and people can’t even fit in the courtyard,” says Aldina Luinovic, 27, a journalist and practicing Muslim who had lived in Belgrade for four years. 

With around 150,000 Muslims living in the capital, according to Islamic Community estimates, the fact there is only one mosque is the cause of the most visible problem facing the community.  Muslims are forced to pray at home, at prayer houses (masjids) or on the street.

“This means we have to get by, so prayer is often held on the plateau in front of the mosque, in hot sun or rain, in 40 degrees or minus 20,” says Edo Celebic, an analyst and news editor with Al Jazeera Balkans who is in his late thirties.

He remembers the first time he attended Eid al-Adha prayer at the city centre’s Bajrakli mosque in 2006, and says little has changed since.

“The day was very cold. They couldn’t close the fountain in the mosque courtyard so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. The water was so cold it cramped my toes,” Celebic says.

He ended up praying on the stairs between the first and second floor of the nearby Islamic Community building.

Before the call to prayer at the Bajrakli mosque, hundreds of believers queue in front of the small toilet at the nearby Islamic Community of Serbia headquarters to perform ritual ablutions before prayer because they cannot all squeeze into the mosque’s courtyard.

The mosque’s imam, Ramadan Mehmedi, says: “Right now they [believers] perform abdest (ablutions) at two sinks next to the toilet seat [in the Islamic Community building].”

Belgrade Mufti Mustafa Jusufspahic told BIRN the lack of mosques and facilities is unduly complicating the lives of the city’s Muslim population.

“We have only one mosque with a minaret and 17 [Belgrade] municipalities where Muslims live. It is not easy to send your child from [far off neighbourhoods like] Zemun Polje or Sremcica, for example, to get religious education [in the city centre].”

Mosque demolished overnight

Anger over conditions for Muslims has worsened considerably after the controversial overnight demolition of an illegally-built mosque in the Belgrade suburb of Zemun Polje on May 26 – the day before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

“Am I supposed to pray in the street to show what a ‘cosmopolitan’ city Belgrade is?” Mufti Jusufspahic said at a press conference the day after the demolition.

"They demolished it under the pretext it was illegal, when every building around here is illegal. We sought to make it legal,” Emin Zejnulahu, Mufti of Srem County, an area in the north of Serbia to which the mosque belonged, told BIRN.

Zejnulahu says he was taken in by police after the demolition in order to make a statement and claims he was mistreated by the officers.

“The ones who… [detained] me were rude [and] threatened to ‘skin me alive’…I know this is not a reflection of Serbia and that most people do not think the same,” he said, adding Muslims do not seek vengeance for the demolished mosque.

The municipal authorities of Zemun Polje demolished the mosque, saying it had been built without a permit. After locals defended the building a day earlier, the authorities waited for cover of night to tear it down. The authorities did not answer BIRN’s questions about why the mosque was not granted a construction permit.

The mosque in Zemun Polje was operated by the Serbian-run Islamic Community of Serbia, who condemned the move in its Ramadan message.

“The authorities have ‘congratulated’ the Muslims of Serbia, Belgrade and Zemun on Ramadan by sending bulldozers and a thousand gendarmes to the mosque. We return the greeting with the words of the prophet Isa [Jesus]: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’” read the message.

The Islamic Community in Serbia, a rival organisation whose leaders are based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, issued a press release criticising the demolition as an example of the double standards applied to Muslims in Serbia.

“Practitioners of Islam already live in dire conditions and are deprived of their basic religious rights, like having religious buildings and graveyards,” the statement read.

By comparison, Belgrade and Serbia as a whole is practically littered with Orthodox Christian graveyards and churches.

Meanwhile, Belgrade Mufti Jusufspahic called on Muslims to remain calm saying that he expects an explanation from Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

“We were wrong to build [the mosque] without a licence, just like half the population of this country has. It is a problem with urban planning that has been turned into a political one because the Islamic Community has not been granted a single construction permit in 47 years,” he said.

‘Difficult living conditions’

Belgrade Mufti Mustafa Jusufspahic. Photo: Beta 

Journalist Luinovic, who also studied in Belgrade, says Muslims face many other problems in the capital.

She says Muslim students find it difficult to meet the obligation to pray five times each day as University of Belgrade campuses lack prayer rooms and that the food in university refectories often contains pork, leaving Muslims with only side-dishes to choose from.

BIRN asked the university to comment on facilities for Muslim students but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Luinovic’s views are echoed by Muamer Zukorlic, a former mufti of the Islamic Community in Serbia who is now a sitting MP and supporter of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

Zukorlic is calling on the authorities to start solving the numerous problems Muslims face “before things get out of hand”.

While acknowledging the demolished mosque was built without construction permits, he warns the Muslim population should not be expected to tolerate so many difficulties.

“This act [the demolition] deserves the sharpest condemnation and sheds light on Belgrade Muslims’ extremely difficult living conditions,” he says.

Civil society activist and former MP Aida Corovic also condemned the actions of the state.

“With the night-time demolition of the mosque in Zemun, the state has clearly demonstrated its policy towards minorities. Plain and simple, we have seen different criteria applied by the state in its treatment of minority and majority communities,” Corovic told BIRN.

Meanwhile, Celebic says that the Muslims of Zemun Polje had hoped to celebrate this Ramadan in their new, although unfinished, mosque.

“I saw on TV people praying next to its ruins… almost nothing has changed [for Muslims in Belgrade], he says.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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