x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Row delays opening of symbolic German mosque

Architect sacked over construction errors and surreptitiously incorporating Christian elements into the design.

A woman takes a photo during the roofing ceremony of a new large mosque in the Cologne suburb of Ehrenfeld on February 2, 2011.
A woman takes a photo during the roofing ceremony of a new large mosque in the Cologne suburb of Ehrenfeld on February 2, 2011.

BERLIN // The completion of one of Germany's largest mosques, once hailed as a symbol of the integration of Muslims into the nation, has been delayed until August following a bitter dispute.

Construction of the Central Mosque in Cologne has been under way since 2009 and the mosque's 35 metre-high dome and its two 55-metre minarets already dominate the skyline of the district of Ehrenfeld.

The Islamic organisation that commissioned the building sacked the German architect, Paul Böhm, in October, accusing him of 2,000 construction errors, cost overruns and of surreptitiously incorporating Christian elements into the design.

"Mr Böhm was brilliant as an artist but he failed as a master builder," said the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib) a branch of the Turkish government's religious affairs office.

It submitted a list of flaws such as nails and wire rods that were jutting out of the concrete of the unfinished building. The grand dome also is 23 centimetres out of place, Ditib said.

Mr Böhm, Ditib said, had included Christian crosses in the shape of the layout as well as a hidden Christogram made up of an X and a P, an old Christian symbol.

Mr Böhm, a respected designer of religious buildings, denied the accusations, and complained that Ditib was to blame for cost increases because it kept changing its mind about details.

He threatened to take legal action that would bring the project to a standstill.

Controversial from the outset, many residents complained that the mosque, which will offer space for 1,200 worshippers, would be too big. A far-right citizen's group called Pro Cologne mounted a campaign against it, gathering 20,000 signatures and said that "a representative mosque with dome and minaret for several thousand faithful would change the face and the character of our hometown".

"Ditib is entrenching the Turkish-Islamic parallel society in Germany," Pro Cologne said on its website. "Turkish is the dominant language in its institutions and even some of its leading representatives in our country hardly speak a world of German. Ditib doesn't serve the integration of our foreign fellow citizens but instead alienates many Turks from their host country."

Ditib is an umbrella group for more than 1,000 mosque communities in Germany. It has said it is the biggest immigrant organisation in Germany.

Its decision to sack Mr Böhm without first informing the mosque's advisory council was widely condemned in Cologne. Critics said its actions reflected a conservative stance on religious matters by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey.

Germany has four million Muslim immigrants, the majority of whom are of Turkish descent. They have launched a drive in recent years to build mosques after spending decades worshipping in rickety prayer rooms and backstreet halls.

Turks began moving to Germany as "guest workers" in the 1950s and 1960s. They were invited by the West German government to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War.

Half a century on, they are still widely labelled as "foreigners", even though hundreds of thousands were born in Germany, speak the language and have German citizenship.

The mosque row alarmed the Cologne city authority because the building would become a mighty symbol of division if left uncompleted. It appointed a mediator, Fritz Schramma, a former mayor of Cologne, who arranged a fragile truce earlier this month.

Ditib has refused to reinstate Mr Böhm, but agreed to allow the architect to remain on in an advisory capacity to help get the mosque completed by this summer. But Ditib's chairman, Ali Dere, refused to take back the statement that Mr Böhm had failed as a builder.

"I don't think we did anything wrong," he said earlier this month.

The agreement doesn't cover the monetary claims the two sides have against each other which will have to be settled in court. Mr Böhm said the agreement amounted to a "very delicate little flower".