Muslim plans to convert a former Lutheran church in the city of Hamburg into a mosque is generating controversy across Germany.
From Berlin to Dortmund to Mönchengladbach, the gradual proliferation of mosques housed in former churches reflects the rise of Islam as the fastest growing religion in post-Christian Germany. In the most recent case, the church would be the first converted into a mosque in the second-largest city in Germany.
The latest dust-up involves the former Kapernaumkirche (Capernaum Church), located in the Horn district in downtown Hamburg. The church, a cultural heritage site, was abandoned in 2002 for financial reasons due to declining membership.
The building and an adjacent 44 meter (144 foot) tower/steeple as well as the surrounding land was sold in December 2012 to the Al-Nour Islamic Center, which has approximately 600 members, mainly made up of Arab Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
The church is currently undergoing renovations at a cost of one million euros ($1.4 million) and is scheduled to be reopened as a mosque on October 3, the Day of German Unity [Tag der Deutschen Einheit], a public holiday commemorating the anniversary of German reunification in 1990. Muslims in Germany have also claimed October 3 as Open Mosque Day [Tag der offenen Moschee], a day when non-Muslims are allowed to visit mosques.
Major German newspapers have greeted the news with apparent resignation, and have published editorials with titles such as "When Mosques Replace Churches," "Tenant Allah," "Christian on the Outside, Muslim on the Inside," and "The New Normal."
But political and religious leaders have been more circumspect; many have responded to the situation with a sense of unease and foreboding.
Marcus Weinberg, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) in Hamburg, said: "I am opposed to this. Even if the transaction is legally permissible, the conversion of a former church into a mosque will do little to improve cultural and religious coexistence in the area." He has appealed to city officials to meet with the Al-Nour Center to discuss "attractive building alternatives."
Helge Adolphsen, the former senior pastor of St. Michael's Church, the most iconic church in Hamburg, said: "This is the breaking of a dam."
According to Ulrich Rüß, a Lutheran pastor in northern Germany, converting the church into a mosque is "counter-productive" and reveals "how far secularization and the strengthening of the Islamic religious claim to power has advanced in our society."
Roman Catholics have also expressed skepticism. Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke said: "The rededication of a church into a mosque is not in our interest. The interchangeability of Christianity and Islam is not what is meant by good inter-religious dialogue. Catholics are not in favor of replacing the religion affiliation of a church just like that."
Catholic churches have not, however, been immune from becoming mosques.
In Duisburg, an industrial city in the northwestern part of the country, where the Roman Catholic Church recently announced plans to close several churches due to meager attendance, Muslims have set their sights on the historic Church of Saint Peter and Paul, the last remaining church in the Marxloh part of Duisburg. After a public outcry over rumors that the church would be converted into a mosque, Roman Catholic officials decided to keep the church open, at least for the time being.
All of the churches slated for closing are located in the gritty Hamborn and Marxloh districts in northern Duisburg, where Islam has already replaced Christianity as the dominant religion, and where several Catholic churches have already been abandoned in a previous round of church closings.
Duisburg, which has a total population of 500,000, is home to around 100,000 mostly Turkish Muslims, making it one of the most Islamized cities in Germany.
Marxloh also happens to be home to the Duisburg Merkez Mosque, the largest mosque in Germany. Completed in 2008 at a cost of more than €7.5 million ($10 million), the Ottoman-style mega-mosque can accommodate more than 1,200 Muslim worshippers at a time.
Leaders of the Merkez Mosque apparently want to turn the churches in Hamborn and Marxloh into mosques and prayer centers that would serve as extensions of the mega-mosque. According to the chairman of the Merkez Mosque, Mohammed Al, "Regardless of whether it is a church or a mosque, it is a house of God."
In Germany as a whole, more than 400 Roman Catholic churches and more than 100 Protestant churches have been closed since 2000, according to one estimate. At least 277 Protestant churches have been either sold or demolished since 1990, according to the Evangelical Church in Germany. Another 700 Roman Catholic churches are slated to be closed over the next several years.
By contrast, there are now more than 200 purpose-built mosques (including more than 40 so-called mega-mosques which can accommodate 1,000 or more worshippers), 2,600 Muslim prayer halls and a countless number of unofficial mosques in Germany, where the Muslim population has jumped from around 500,000 in the early 1980s to more than four million today. Another 128 mosques are currently under construction, according to the Zentralinstitut Islam-Archiv, a Muslim organization based in Germany.
Back in Hamburg, Jörg Fromann of the Christian Democrats says renovations to the Capernaum Church should be prohibited because the building is considered to be a historical landmark. But he predicts that for political expediency, city officials will not oppose the conversion of the church into a mosque
In November 2012, the city of Hamburg signed a "state treaty" with its Muslim communities that grants Muslims broad new rights and privileges -- but does little to encourage their integration into German society.
The agreement, signed by Hamburg's Socialist Mayor, Olaf Scholz, and the leaders of four Muslim umbrella groups, has been praised by the proponents of multiculturalism for putting the northern port city's estimated 200,000 Muslims on an equal footing with Christian residents.
Not coincidentally, one of the signatories of the "historic treaty" happens to be the Chairman of the Al-Nour Center, Daniel Abdin, who is leading the effort to convert the former church into a mosque.
According to Fromann: "The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has guaranteed that Islamic religious communities have the right, within the framework of applicable laws, to build and operate mosques, prayer and meeting rooms, educational institutions and other community organizations according to their own discretion. This includes ensuring the right to equip Islamic mosques with domes and minarets."
Says Abdin: "Do not worry, the muezzin (the crier who calls the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day) will not shout from the minaret." Probably at least not right away.