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Intercultural Dialogue

Islamic cultural center aims to build religious 'bridges' in Warsaw

An Islamic cultural center is being built in the Polish capital, Warsaw, next to the city's new mosque. Its construction initially sparked protests, but now some are hoping it could be a sign of integration for Muslims.

Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan

Most of Poland's Muslims come from Syria, Iraq and Libya

Poland, like many other European countries, is trying to find ways of integrating, or co-existing with, its immigrant population. The country has a growing Muslim community, fed by immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Libya, who are attracted by Poland's membership of the European Union.

Polish authorities have begun granting permission to construct several mosques in the country. In Warsaw, a project to build a cultural center initially proved controversial, and was opposed by traditional Roman Catholic groups. But others were more supportive. Liberal Christian, Jewish and lay groups expressed solidarity for the rights of Muslims to practice their religion.

Warsaw's mosque

Warsaw's main mosque houses the the Muslim Religious Union in Poland

The Islamic cultural center being built in Warsaw has been designed to fit in with Polish architectural tradition. Salim Ismail of The Polish Islamic League stressed that care was taken to avoid symbols that Poland's Roman Catholic majority might find offensive.

"There is no minaret to remind the faithful of prayer times," Ismail said. "Our idea was to make the center multi-functional… We want to build bridges and forge contacts."

Along with a prayer room the center will house a gallery, a multimedia center and library. The organizers behind the construction of the Warsaw Islamic cultural center hope that the instituion will serve to change stereotypes about Muslims in the wider community. To help them get their message across, they have turned to Poland's own established Muslim community, the Tatars.

Poland's native Muslim population

Polish Tatars, who practice Islam, are an ethnic group that came from the Crimea to settle in Poland 600 years ago. This small, but influential community has traditionally provided warriors for Polish armies. There are also a number of prominent Polish academics and artists who are descended from the Tatars.

A wooden mosque in Bohoniki

Tartars have been in Poland for over 300 years, settling here after the battle for Vienna.

Writer Selim Chazbijewicz thinks that Polish Tatars are aware of their potential role as a bridge between Polish and Islamic cultures.

"We Tatars are part of Polish culture," Chazbijewicz told Deutsche Welle. "In fact, we are probably the only living reminder of how diverse Poland's society used to be in past centuries… We want to preserve traces of our culture in libraries and archives, because we realize that within two to three generations, Polish Tatars may melt into the rest of Polish society."

Polish tourists enjoy going to see historic wooden mosques in traditional Tatar villages like Kruszyniany in the northeast of the country. The visibility of Tatar culture helps ordinary Poles realize that Muslims are also part of the the country's heritage.

But there are some in Poland, like leftwing politician Tadeusz Iwinski, who believe that it is not enough to keep the tradition alive for the tourists. Iwinski wants Poland's growing Muslim community to develop a formal relationship with the state, along the lines of the concordat which currently outlines the state's relations with Christian churches.

Soldiers with a wooden cross outside the presidential palace

Poland is a deeply Catholic country

"Major churches, especially the dominant Roman Catholic church, are involved in regular consultations with the authorities to thrash out problems. I believe Polish Muslims should enjoy the same rights as Christiansm," Iwinski said.

Given the strong emphasis usually placed on Christian values in Poland's daily political and social life, minority groups are encouraged that attention is now being paid to their rights too.

Author: Rafal Kiepuszewski (jli)
Editor: Rob Turner

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