Monday, 26 October 2009

Muslims prosper in Catholic Poland




Poland's Muslim community makes up only a tiny fraction of the country's population. But with immigration from places like Turkey and Pakistan on the rise, the numbers can only grow. And Muslims are intent on gaining understanding and respect, whether they've been there for centuries or just a few years.

An estimated 30,000 Muslims live in Poland – that’s less than 0.1 per cent of a population that is 96 per cent Catholic. But the Islamic community is a thriving religious minority in Poland.

The first Muslim settlements date back to the 14th century when Tatars settled in the eastern villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany.

Their communities once numbered about 17,000 people, and they were able to practice Islam freely in exchange for military service. But now only a few families remain.

A visitors’ book in Kruszyniany’s mosque – the oldest of the three in the country – contains messages from Israel, Bosnia and Afghanistan. But while Muslims from abroad are welcome there, there are some slight differences in the way Tatars and Muslims practice Islam.

Usuf, a Muslim Tatar, says there are “very strong religious connections between the Tatars and other Muslims living in Poland, but as for the ethnical issues – the attitude is quite different, because we have different traditions.”

In relation to gender, Usuf says “Muslim Tatar women do not have to wear the hijab, while Arab Muslim women cannot go outside unless they put a hijab on.”

Also it seems that the Tatars are the most active in terms of presenting Islam to the Polish Christians – and a traditional Tatar hotel and restaurant in Kruszyniany is a vivid example. It has been open for five years, offering villagers and tourists a taste of Tatar life.

Hotel owner Dzenneta Bogdanowicz said that when he moved to Poland he thought it was “such a pity that there was nothing to display the Tatar traditions. So I wanted to give people an opportunity to experience Tatar life,” she said.

And it proved successful, with the restaurant gaining national recognition for its service to Polish tourism.

But Poland remains largely homogenous, despite joining the EU in 2004. Its capital, Warsaw, doesn’t have the large immigrant communities seen in the likes of London or Paris. Foreigners remain something or a rarity on Polish streets.

Warsaw’s only mosque is a converted family home and attracts up to 300 people for Friday prayers.

The President of the Muslim League in Poland, Samir Ismail, says most of Warsaw’s 5,000 Muslims are academics who came to study in the 1980s and stayed.

And although they are a minority religion in the country, they ensure there is no conflict by working alongside Polish Catholics.

“We’re trying to explain to people that stereotypes about women, Islam and terrorism. We’re trying to do what we can and people need time and more information,” Samir Ismail says.

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