Catholic Church Collects Money for Mosque

16 March 2007

Cologne, Germany (dpa) - When the Rev. Franz Meurer stands at the altar this Sunday in his priestly vestments, he'll say to the congregation: "Today's collection is for the construction of the big new mosque in Ehrenfeld."

Meurer, 55, is not expecting protests. Both the board of Cologne's St. Theodore Catholic Church and the parish council have unanimously approved the action.

"It's only natural that we're helping them," he said of the Muslims living in a city that is one of the main centres of Catholicism in Germany. After the special collection was announced last Sunday, several parishioners asked if it was really necessary - considering, for instance, that four young Turks beat a family man into a coma on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.

"I said, 'Hey, people, think about it, will you? We'll be supporting the sensible ones'," Meurer recalled. "That's not so dumb."

St. Theodore's parish council came up with the unusual idea. Its chairman reminded the group that their new church was completed five years ago, and that the Protestant parish in the neighbourhood had given a nice gift.

"Now we, in turn, should give someone a gift too," Meurer said. "That's how we hit upon the mosque; it's being designed by the same architect that did our church."

The mosque, at the headquarters of the Turkish-Islamic Union for the Institution of Religion (DITIB) in the Cologne district of Ehrenfeld, will be one of Germany's biggest. Plans call for two 55-metre-high minarets, a dome, and room for more than 3,000 worshippers.

A right-wing populist party called ProCologne has been gathering signatures for a public petition against the structure. Ehrenfeld residents who want nothing to do with the petition have reservations about the size of the mosque, however.

Meurer's parish is in the Cologne suburbs of Hoehenberg and Vingst, both of which have a high proportion of foreigners. At his initiative, 180 sponsors planted 41,000 daffodils now in bloom along the streets.

Christian community work for Meurer means things like installing public dog loos because, as he said, "once an area like this is neglected, it can go downhill very fast."

At the community centre, young Muslim women in headscarves are photographed at no cost for job applications. Turkish children play in the yard. And Meurer organises multi-religious celebrations.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, set off a heated debate late last year when he directed Catholic school teachers in the region to stop participating in multi-religious events.

"All that matters to me about them is keeping peace in the area," Meurer remarked. "We don't pray together there. We get to know each other, which is possible only at get-togethers like that."

Weighing what the parish could buy for the mosque sparked a lively discussion about Islam, Meurer said.

"Our people were suggesting such things as a little kneeler, a bell, a picture and the like. But then I said, 'Friends, this isn't likely to lead anywhere. They pray to God one on one in their mosques. They haven't got liturgical objects like we do'."

About 350 euros (462 dollars) winds up in the collection bag on normal Sundays. This time, though, more than 1,000 euros has been collected in advance. DITIB officials said the amount of the gift was unimportant.

"It's simply a nice gesture by Mr Meurer," said Rafet Ozturk, DITIB's coordinator for interreligious dialogue. "We're pleased, of course. Even very pleased."

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