World Bulletin/News Desk
Forty-four years after the inception of an idea to build an Islamic cultural center in Slovenia, the first foundation stone for the center was placed on Saturday in a groundbreaking ceremony in capital Ljubljana.
Thousands of people gathered for the ceremony which was also attended by Bosniak member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Bakir Izetbegovic, President of the Government of Slovenia Alenka Bratušek, former President of Slovenia Danilo Turk, Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic, mufti of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina Hussein Kavazovic and mufti of Ljubljana Nedzad Grabus.
"I am happy to attend this extraordinary ceremony sharing joy with Bosniaks and Muslims all over Slovenia and Ljubljana, who will soon get their home -- a modern Islamic cultural center and a mosque," Izetbegovic told the ceremony.
"I thank the Republic of Slovenia and Ljubljana for the support to the project by providing the necessary permits and approvals for the construction. Thanks to all people of good will, the governments of friendly countries and organizations for their engagement, their voluntary contributions and donations to the Mufti Nedzad Grabus and his associates in this historic project."
The idea of building an Islamic cultural center in Ljubljana dates back to 1969 when the first formal request was submitted by Sulejman Kemurato, the then head of the Islamic community in Ljubljana.
The Islamic community have since faced problems in obtaining a construction permit and finding a location for the center.
After taking office, Ljubljana Mayor Jankovic offered a new location to build a mosque in the city center. In 2008, Islamic community offered to buy the land.
The initiative has been beset by administrative hurdles and a lack of political will in the mainly Catholic country of two million people, of which some 50,000 are Muslims.
Several thousand people attended the ceremony, including Slovenia's centre-left prime minister, Alenka Bratusek, and Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic, who helped lay the first stone.
A handful of women in the crowd wore headscarves - an unusual sight in the Alpine ex-Yugoslav republic, a member of the European Union squeezed between Croatia, Italy and Austria.
"This means the world to me," said Sahra Kacar, 44, who was born the same year as the first official petition to build a mosque in Ljubljana was filed. "We will have a proper place to pray, rather than using various public halls."
The most prosperous of Yugoslavia's six republics, Slovenia saw an influx of people from across the region - including Muslims - seeking work over the past 50 years, particularly with the collapse of their joint state in the early 1990s.
Slovenia broke away in 1991 and its economy boomed, while the likes of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo descended into war.
The proposal for a mosque had been held up by reluctant local officials, some of whom tried to force a referendum on the matter in 2004.
Some 12,000 people signed a petition calling for a plebiscite, but Slovenia's Constitutional Court ruled it would be unconstitutional on the grounds of religious freedom.
"We are happy to be starting this civic project in Ljubljana, which will thus become a better-known and a more pluralistic city," Mufti Nedzad Grabus, the highest representative of Slovenia's Islamic community, told the ceremony.
Construction of the mosque is expected to begin in earnest in November and is projected to take three years at a cost of some 12 million euros ($15.9 million). The Islamic community will foot most of the cost, thanks to a large donation it expects from Qatar.
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