Tuesday, 6 September 2011
The government of Catalonia is cracking down on mosques, in a completely non-discriminatory way, by simply introducing a requirement that they blend in with their architectural surroundings; and by removing the obligation currently imposed on local authorities to provide land for religious purposes.

This should be a model for others to follow. European countries should never have allowed their urban landscapes to be blighted by buildings constructed in Middle-Eastern architectural styles.
Muslims and Evangelists are going to find it harder to open new mosques and churches after the regional government of Catalonia decided to reform a law passed in 2009 to include the words "tradition" and "history" as factors to be "taken into account" when new centers of worship are constructed.

The regulation the government of Artur Mas is preparing also removes the obligation imposed on the region's town halls to provide land for religious use in their urban zoning schemes. The decision will henceforth rest with each town council "in accordance with their requirements."

The draft bill, which the Catalan government is set to approve on September 13, states that the technical and material conditions of all new religious centers "must take into account architectural, cultural, traditional and historic characteristics and the impact of artistic elements."

Although the text is ambiguous, it suggests that the outer façades of Muslim oratories, for example, will be required to conform to the prevailing architecture of its environs and avoid styles that do not fit in with local "history." The law does not specify exactly what is meant by "take into account," nor does it define "tradition." Could it be designed to prevent the future construction of Islamic centers of worship in the traditional architectural style of a mosque, with arches, domes and minarets?

The regional government will refer cases to municipal authorities. "We are talking about giving pointers to each town hall," a government official explains. "Religious centers need to be adapted to the façades of other buildings."

But the denominations themselves "must ask if what is important is the façade or what is inside," says the director general of religious affairs in the region, Xavier Puigdollers. The local administration of Torroella de Montgrí vetoed a project to construct a mosque in its municipality because its design contained Arabic elements that did not conform to local tradition.

The town of Salt, which has a large immigrant population, has been a focus of tension in recent times, leading to a ban on a march planned by the xenophobic Plataforma per Catalunya party against the building of a mosque.

Critics of the reform, such as the former secretary of immigration, Oriol Amorós, believe that there are "a surplus" of allusions to history and culture in the reform. "It is sufficient to say that they have to respect town planning rules, like everybody else," says Amorós.

"What the law perhaps is aimed at is there should be a process of blending the mosques in with their surroundings, as has already happened in some European countries," says Jordi Moreras, a sociologist and an expert in mosques and Islam. "And, in turn, to avoid architectural elements that can provoke contempt, such as minarets."

The new law also states that the temporary occupation of the street or the temporary concession of public space for religious celebrations should take into account the "level of establishment and popular support of each church, oratory and religious community." The draft bill has met with criticism from both Muslim and Evangelist associations because, in practice, it imposes limits on the right to religious freedom contained in Spain's Constitution.

The Evangelical Council objects to the draft law as it "represents a large step backward," according to its director general, Guillem Correa. In Correa's estimation, the regional government has given "license to the municipalities to do whatever they want, without a homogeneous regulation" in deciding the criteria for the approval, or otherwise, of land concessions for religious use.

The Generalitat has justified the reform by saying that the obligation to alter town planning provisions "has caused many problems: these are long and costly processes for municipalities," says Puigdollers.


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