From Belgium to Greece and Spain to Germany, 2013 is shaping up to be another banner year for the construction of mosques in Europe.
In Belgium, work is about to begin on the construction of a mega-mosque in Liège, the third-largest city in the country. The largest mosque in Wallonia (the French-speaking region of Belgium) will be built on an 11,000 m² (118,000 ft²) plot and will consist of a main building with a capacity for 1,000 worshippers, a library, a cafeteria and several shops.
Plans to build two 30 m (98 ft) minarets were scrapped after opposition from local residents. The new plan involves one 18 m (60 ft) minaret which will be automatically illuminated during calls to prayer.
The mayor of Liège, Willy Demeyer (PS), banned a protest march against the mosque that was to have been held on March 30. "My role is to avoid excesses and problems of public order," he said.
In Germany, Muslims in the northern city of Hamburg are converting the former Kapernaumkirche (Capernaum Church), a cultural heritage site, into a mosque.
In the southern German city of Munich, local politicians are debating where to build a massive mosque complex known as the Center for Islam in Europe-Munich (ZIE-M). The 6,000 m² (65,000 ft²) mega-project, which will cost an estimated €40 million ($51 million), is designed to be a key strategic platform for spreading Islam throughout Europe.
Speculation is rife that the Persian Gulf Emirate of Qatar will pay for the project, although the Qatari Ambassador to Germany recently told the newspaper Münchner Merkur that no final decision has been made.
The citizen's movement Die Freiheit Bayern (Freedom Bavaria) organized a demonstration against the project in downtown Munich on March 24, but only 120 people bothered to show up.
In Greece, which is effectively bankrupt, the government has pledged to spend €1.1 million ($1.4 million) to build an official mosque in Athens for the city's expanding Muslim population.
The mosque, which will be built on the former naval base in Votanikos, will be able to hold around 500 worshippers as well as hundreds more in an outdoor area.
The Greek government agreed in September 2011 to pay for the mosque after an offer from the Turkish government to pay for it was rejected by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, and opposed by the Muslim community in Greece, which insisted that the Greek state pay for it.
Samaras says he wants to establish a mosque in Athens -- the only capital in European Union that lacks a state-backed place for Muslim worship -- in a bid to boost Greece's diplomatic hand vis-à-vis Turkey.
An estimated 120 sites are illegally operating as mosques in Athens. These makeshift spaces serve an estimated 200,000 Muslims living in the city, many of whom are illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan.
In Thessaloniki, the 111-year-old New Mosque (which was once a museum and is now used as an exhibition hall) welcomed Muslim worshippers for the first time in 90 years on March 30. On the initiative of the city's mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, the mosque opened its doors to 50 Muslims from Komotini, a city in Thrace, a region of northeastern Greece.
Komotini is home to a sizeable Muslim minority, which constitutes 45% of the city's population. Turkey's ambassador to Greece, Kerim Uras, said he expects Islam to have a higher profile in Greece in the future. He said the move to open the mosque was "a positive step in the right direction. We're expecting the rest to come. I hope Athens will also be a place where Muslims can pray."
In Ireland, city planners in Dublin have given the go-ahead for the construction of a sprawling mega-mosque complex that will cater to Ireland's growing Muslim population. The massive €40 million ($50 million) "Islamic Cultural Center" will be built on a six-acre site in Clongriffin, a new and as yet unfinished suburb at the northern edge of Dublin. It will compete with another mosque complex in the southern suburb of Clonskeagh that also goes by the name "Islamic Cultural Center," a sprawling four-acre campus, financed by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the deputy ruler of Dubai.
Rumors have it that the new mega-mosque at Clongriffin will be financed by Qatar, which recently donated €800,000 ($1 million) to build a mega-mosque in Cork, the second-most populous city in Ireland.
In Luxembourg, a Muslim group called Le Juste Milieu (LJM) is engaged in a fund-raising drive to collect €1.8 million ($2.3 million) to purchase the ground floor of a building that currently houses a makeshift mosque in downtown Luxembourg City. The building is mostly residential; local residents are opposed to the mosque.
The purchase is generating controversy because of concerns over how LJM will raise the cash it needs. In August 2012, the German-language newspaper Tageblatt reported that the Qatar was paying €2.2 million ($2.8 million) to establish a mosque and madrassah [Islamic religious school] that would cater to the 10,000 Muslims who have settled in Luxembourg.
In Scotland, St. John's Episcopal Church in Aberdeen has become the first church in the United Kingdom to share its premises with Muslim worshippers. The church now welcomes hundreds of Muslims praying five times a day in their building because the nearby mosque was so small that worshippers were forced to pray outside.
According to the rector of St. John's, Isaac Poobalan, "Praying is never wrong. My job is to encourage people to pray. The mosque was so full at times, there would be people outside in the wind and rain praying. I knew I couldn't just let this happen, because I would be abandoning what the Bible teaches us about how we should treat our neighbors."
The bishop of Aberdeen, Robert Gillies, says that by handing over sections of the church to the mosque, the church has accomplished "something of global significance on a local scale."
In Spain, Muslims inaugurated a new mosque on March 21 in the northern Basque town of Portugalete. The mosque has been resoundingly opposed by local residents, but city officials approved the building permit in order to "promote the integration of Muslims into the local community."
A recent study commissioned by the Basque government found that one in four Basques reject the idea of having a mosque in their neighborhood, and one in five do not want a Muslim as a neighbor.
The Basque Country is home to more than 50,000 Muslims, 70 Muslim groups, two dozen officially licensed mosques and hundreds of unofficial Islamic prayer rooms and cultural centers. Muslims in the Basque region, who hail mostly from Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa, have become increasingly assertive in recent years.
Residents of the Basque city of Bilbao are finding their mailboxes stuffed with flyers in Spanish and Arabic from the Islamic Community of Bilbao asking for money to build a 650 m² (7,000 ft²) mosque costing €550,000 ($735,000).
Until recently, the Islamic Community of Bilbao had the following statement posted on its website: "We were expelled [from Spain] in 1609, really not that long ago. … The echo of Al-Andalus still resonates in all the valley of the Ebro [Spain]. We are back to stay, Insha'Allah [if Allah wills it]." (Al-Andalus was the Arabic name given to the parts of Spain ruled by Muslim conquerors from 711 until 1492.)
In Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community inaugurated a new mosque on March 29 -- which also happened to be Good Friday, the day when Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary.
The 1,500 m² (16,000 ft²) Baitur-Rahman Mosque, with a capacity for 600 worshippers, adds to the 172 mosques already located in the Valencia region.
The mosque was inaugurated by Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, whose sermon was broadcast in several languages to tens of millions of viewers with the help of eight satellites.
Ahmad told his followers that Valencia had been chosen to host the mosque because that is where the expulsion of the Moriscos (descendants of the Muslim population that converted to Christianity under threat of exile from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1502) began in 1609.
Ahmad added: "In Spain there are a million Muslims and we believe that in twenty years this number will double. In Spain there are signs that Islam will dominate once again." He also said the mission of the new mosque would be to "spread the teachings of Islam to every single citizen of Spain."
In the Catalan municipality of Salt, a town near Barcelona where Muslim immigrants now make up 40% of the population, work has begun on the construction of a two-story Salafi mega-mosque -- built by two Spain-based Salafist groups, Al Hilal Islamic Cultural Association and Magrebins per la Pau Association, with funding from Saudi Arabia -- with a capacity for 750 worshippers.
Salafism, a branch of radical Islam based in Saudi Arabia, seeks to establish an Islamic empire (Caliphate) across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and eventually the world. The Caliphate would be governed exclusively by Islamic Sharia law, to be applied both to Muslims and non-Muslims.
Salt approved a one-year ban on the construction of new mosques in August 2011 to provide "some time for reflection" after it emerged that the previous Socialist government in the town secretly gave permission to the Salafi Muslims to build the mega-mosque.
The deal to build the mega-mosque was discovered only after the Socialists were ejected from power in May 2011. Public outrage prompted the new town council -- now ruled by the center-right Convergència i Unió (CiU) party -- to prevent the mosque from being built.
Construction of the Salafi mosque is proceeding, nonetheless: apparently the construction permit was issued before the non-retroactive moratorium took effect.
In nearby Lérida, where 30,000 Muslims make up more than 20% of the city's population, mosque builders are facing a problem of a different kind: on March 4, 2013, the Catalan Supreme Court ruled that a local Muslim group would not be allowed to build a mega-mosque in an industrial park, called El Segre, because a municipal ordinance states that the area may only be used for industrial purposes; as such, the premises were deemed unfit for public assembly.
Two days after that ruling, another judge at a different court ordered city officials in Lérida to approve the construction of an 800 m² (8,600 ft²) brothel in the same industrial park, two streets away from where Muslims had wanted to build their mosque.
City officials said they had originally denied the license to build the brothel because of a lack of parking space, but the judge disagreed, saying the denial "has more to do with the subject of the proposed business (a brothel) than with a concern over parking."
An article in the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia entitled, "Brothel Yes, Mosque No" reports that the Lérida City Council "does not hide its surprise at these two opposing points of view from the judiciary on the use that can be given to the plots in the same industrial park." City officials say they will appeal the ruling.
In Switzerland, a Muslim group called Club Paradise is converting a bowling alley into a mosque. The future imam of the new mosque, Fehim Dragusha, originally from Kosovo, made local headlines in late 2011 when he called on Muslim parents to beat their children if they refuse to pray. Dragusha says he was misunderstood because of his poor German language skills. He now says he favors a "modern Islam."
In other mosque-related news, the Danish toymaker Lego has tried to defend its controversial decision to remove its Jabba's Palace toy set -- based on a scene from Star Wars Episode VI -- from store shelves.
In January 2013, the Turkish Cultural Community of Austria (TCA) complained that "Jabba's Palace" resembled the Hagia Sophia mosque, originally a Christian church, in Istanbul, formerly the Christian city of Constantinople; and that the accompanying figures depicted "racial prejudice and vulgar insinuations" against Muslims as people with "deceitful and criminal personalities."
Initially, Lego refused to back down, insisting that the product was merely a faithful reproduction of the images in the Star Wars movie. But after a meeting in Munich on March 29 between Turkish community leaders and Lego executives, Lego agreed to end its production of the toy from 2014 onwards.
Lego says its decision had nothing to do with pressure from Muslims and everything to do with the natural lifecycle of the product. But the Turks do not see it that way. The jubilant president of the TCA, Birol Killic, said in a statement: "We are very grateful and congratulate Lego on the decision to take Jabba's Palace out of production." He added: "Lego managers have also promised that the chief toy maker will be sensitized on this [multicultural] issue."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.