The Essalam mosque, one of the biggest in Western Europe and funded by a UAE charity, begins operations after 11 years of controversy and delays.
Essalam, a symbol of pride, opens its doors in Holland
ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS // For this port city's Muslim inhabitants, the towering Essalam mosque stands as a unique source of pride.
The new landmark, funded by the Al Maktoum Foundation at the expense of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance, has been 11 years in the making, but now rests as a bridge between the Muslim community and the rest of the city.
Almost from the beginning, the mosque, meant to hold 2,600 worshippers, faced resistance from growing anti-immigrant and anti-Islam groups in The Netherlands. After the government called for the construction of several mosques for the city's sizeable Muslim community and having issued a permit in 1999, a new more right-leaning city council held up construction from 2000 to 2003.
Once work was started in 2004, the project was delayed by conflicts with the builders and issues within the Moroccan community.
The building stands in a heavily immigrant neighbourhood in the south of Rotterdam, down the road from the stadium of the city's famed football club, Fijenoord. Its proximity to the field led some opponents to complain that the mosque's two 50-metre minarets rivalled the stadium's light masts as a symbol of what the city is supposed to stand for.
The right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders and his party remained opposed to the mosque until the very end, voicing his dismay via Twitter on the day of its opening: "That horrible thing does not belong here but in Saudi Arabia."
But, last week, as an assortment of luminaries and guests gathered to open the mosque's doors, the challenges were put to rest.
There are still finishing touches to be made to the three-storey complex. Once it is complete, the mosque will be the largest mosque in The Netherlands, and one of the largest in Europe.
Already, it is a point of interest for many here. Pushing a pram through the snow outside the mosque, a young veiled woman sang the building's praises.
"I was so curious, I had to come and see it," she said. "It's wonderful because the old place got so crowded on holidays. Here we finally have room."
Even though the mosque was primarily meant for the Moroccan community, a Turkish patron of a nearby cafe said that he might frequent it.
"In Rotterdam there should be room for the mosque and for the cafe," he said.
The mosque's opening was given a festive character with the attendance of, among others, the city's Moroccan-born mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim of Turkish origin, and the UAE's ambassador to The Netherlands, Ali Thani Alsuwaidi.
"It was organised quickly. We hope that for the big party next year, Sheikh Hamdan will be able to come," Abdelrazak Boutaher, the vice chairman of the mosque's board, said of the mosque's opening.
Hamit Karakus, the city alderman for planning who had nudged the project along, was relieved by the opening of the mosque and expressed hope that it could soon start fulfilling a healing role in the city. "Now the burden of proof is on the mosque, to convince all those who were against it, and the population in general, that it can play a positive role, to build bridges which is what the Maktoum Foundation stands for," he said.
Many non-Muslim Dutch residents of the neighbourhood are positive about the building. One woman said: "It is beautiful and to me it does not matter whether it's a mosque or a church."