Building Religious "Bridges" in Poland

An Islamic cultural centre is being built in the Polish capital, Warsaw, next to the city's new mosque. Its construction initially sparked protests, but now some are hoping it could be a sign of integration for Muslims. Rafal Kiepuszewski reports

Men praying in a mosque (photo: DW)
Although most of the country’s Muslims are immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Libya, Poland also has its own established Muslim community, the Tartars

​​Poland, like many other European countries, is trying to find ways of integrating, or co-existing with, its immigrant population. The country has a growing Muslim community, fed by immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Libya, who are attracted by Poland's membership of the European Union. Polish authorities have begun granting permission to construct several mosques in the country.

In Warsaw, a project to build a cultural centre initially proved controversial, and was opposed by traditional Roman Catholic groups. But others were more supportive. Liberal Christian, Jewish and lay groups expressed solidarity for the rights of Muslims to practice their religion.

Taking care not to offend

The Islamic cultural centre being built in Warsaw has been designed to fit in with Polish architectural tradition. Salim Ismail of the Polish Islamic League stressed that care was taken to avoid symbols that Poland's Roman Catholic majority might find offensive.

"There is no minaret to remind the faithful of prayer times," Ismail said. "Our idea was to make the centre multi-functional … We want to build bridges and forge contacts."

Along with a prayer room, the centre will house a gallery, a multimedia centre and a library. The organisers behind the construction of the Warsaw Islamic Cultural Centre hope that the institution will serve to change stereotypes about Muslims in the wider community. To help them get their message across, they have turned to Poland's own established Muslim community, the Tartars.

Poland's native Muslim population

One of Poland’s old wooden mosques (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Polish Tartars, who practice Islam, are an ethnic group that came from the Crimea to settle in Poland 600 years ago.

​​Polish Tartars, who practice Islam, are an ethnic group that came from the Crimea to settle in Poland 600 years ago. This small, but influential community has traditionally provided warriors for Polish armies. There are also a number of prominent Polish academics and artists who are descended from the Tartars.

Writer Selim Chazbijewicz thinks that Polish Tartars are aware of their potential role as a bridge between Polish and Islamic cultures.

"We Tartars are part of Polish culture," Chazbijewicz told Deutsche Welle. "In fact, we are probably the only living reminder of how diverse Poland's society used to be in past centuries … We want to preserve traces of our culture in libraries and archives, because we realise that within two to three generations, Polish Tartars may melt into the rest of Polish society."

More than just a tourist attraction

Polish tourists enjoy going to see historic wooden mosques in traditional Tartar villages like Kruszyniany in the northeast of the country. The visibility of Tartar culture helps ordinary Poles realise that Muslims are also part of the country's heritage.

Soldiers march in front of the cross outside Poland’s presidential palace (photo: AP)
A deeply Catholic country: for six months, a wooden cross stood outside the presidential palace in remembrance of those who died in the plane crash in Russia in April

​​But there are some in Poland, like left-wing politician Tadeusz Iwinski, who believe that it is not enough to keep the tradition alive for the tourists. Iwinski wants Poland's growing Muslim community to develop a formal relationship with the state, along the lines of the concordat which currently outlines the state's relations with Christian churches.

"Major churches, especially the dominant Roman Catholic church, are involved in regular consultations with the authorities to thrash out problems. I believe Polish Muslims should enjoy the same rights as Christianity," said Iwinski.

Given the strong emphasis usually placed on Christian values in Poland's daily political and social life, minority groups are encouraged that attention is now being paid to their rights too.

Rafal Kiepuszewski

© Deutsche Welle 2010

Editors: Rob Turner /DW, Aingeal Flanagan/
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