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Should there be more mosques in Malta?

I am sure that many would be baffled if not scandalised that I, a Catholic priest, is making that question. Let me tell you what triggered it.

At the end of last, and this week timesofmalta.com published two stories about a group of Muslims - most of them Maltese - who, after obtaining police permission, organised a prayer session on the pavement of part of the Sliema Front. They felt that they had to resort to this act after MEPA informed them that the place they were using as a mosque was licensed to be used only as a place of residence and not as a place of worship.

I do not want to get I involved in the issue between MEPA and the Muslim community. Maltese Muslims like Maltese Catholics have to adhere to Maltese laws. If the law says that a residence cannot be used as a place of worship then what can one do but follow the law? From what was made public so far ,the problems that Muslims faced are not due to some hidden hand trying to discriminate against them. Many a parish priest would also tell you that while building churches or parish centres he had problems with MEPA. More than that, most Maltese had problems with MEPA!

Even if we get the argument of discrimination out of the way, the subject is still open for scrutiny. I will discuss some aspects in my piece on The Sunday Times May 10. Other aspects I will discuss here. In both pieces, I am using the arguments put forward by one of the Catholic church's most prominent prelates, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, Archbishop of Milan.

Should the Catholic community care about the problem of Maltese - and non-Maltese - Muslims regarding accessibility and use of places of worship?

Cardinal Tettamanzi thinks that the Catholic community in Milan should care about the problem. If this holds good for Milan should it not also hold good for Malta? In a speech that the eminent Cardinal delivered last December, he said that Milan needs more places of worship, especially for the Muslims. People belonging to faiths other than Christianity need them even more urgently, especially Islam, said the Cardinal. Such freshness of thought is absent from the mentality of other lesser lights than Tettamanzi!

The right for freedom of religion includes the right to own places of worship. That right is not denied in Malta (though it is denied in practice and/or in theory in some Muslims states) but Catholics should be worried if the followers of any other religion are having practical problems to exercise that right.

Should not Maltese Catholics feel offended that right in front of everyone a group of Muslims obstructed the public pavement - with the permission of the police - to hold their praying session?

The comments that were posted on timesofmalta.com show that several felt offended. Some comments showed anger, disgust and indignation. I read such comments with great attention however I cannot understand how the sight of people praying should be considered as offensive or deplorable by people of another faith. Some of the comments expressed showed religious intolerance and bigotry.

If in the opinion of some people 'Islam scorns other religions and their followers ... it is fanatical, exploits its faith for twisted or criminal ends, and enslaves its women' why should we be tolerant towards it and its followers?

Cardinal Terramanzi recognises this statement as "a common accusation". However, he continues saying that only by talking with Muslims will people discover if the common perceptions are true or true for everyone. Isolated, serious incidents caused by individuals must not push people into accusing all Muslims of the same crimes or to looking upon them with suspicion, says the Cardinal.

Tettamanzi urges all and one to abandon prejudices and stereotypes and begin open and objective dialogue with people of other religions, including Islam. Only through dialogue, he says, can people ascertain whether their fears, suspicions or doubts are justified or not. He also said that we need cultural initiatives that promote reflection, not provocation that only creates dead-end debates and sensationalism. True and fruitful dialogue with people who are different is currently a real emergency everywhere.

The Koran in Maltese

When towards the end of the 1990s the then Provincial of the Franciscans, (If I remember correctly if was Fr Robert Agius) and Fr Edmond Theuma approached me to publish an annotated translation of the Koran I gladly accepted. At that time, I was Chairman of the Media Centre and RTK. Fr Theuma is an expert in Islam and in the Maltese language. His translation was very good. The notes he added to the text were enlightening. I looked at the initiative as a way of dialoguing with the Muslim community in our country. It was a cultural and religious initiative that was intentioned to promote reflection.

We had technical problems when we tried to transfer the translated text from the computer of Fr Theuma to our computers. Since the project was taking longer than we had planned we decided to publish a press release informing the public of the project. All hell (or was it heaven?) broke loose. We - the Media Centre and the Franciscan Conventuals - were "asked" to halt the project. A discussion ensued in several for a including the Church. Part of it was a very healthy discussion. However, there were aspects which were not so healthy. Some hinted that "they" (the Muslims) could blow us up if we publish the Koran in Maltese as they would be insulted by an annotated translation. Stereotypes were bandied around. Some opined that a translation of the Koran published by the Church's Media Centre and a religious order would endanger the Catholic faith in our country.

The Koran was eventually published by the Conventuals after the Media Centre delivered the books bound and ready for sale. Neither the Media Centre nor any building or any religious community was blown up. Neither did we experience a wave of conversions to Islam because of this translation!

The only time in recent years that we experienced an attack on the property of a religious order was just a few years ago. A number of cars owned by the Jesuit community were burnt. I don't think that anyone blames the Muslims for that.

PS. It is up to the Muslim community to decide whether or not they need to build or open more mosques in Malta. However like Cardinal Tettamanzi I believe that the Catholic community should be concerned if the Muslims or any other religious community cannot get the places of worship they need.

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