NEWS | Sunday, 25 November 2007

MEPA issues enforcement against Dar Tal-Islam

Planning decisions and religion are a lethal mix in the post 9-11 world. But sensible planning which finds an adequate place for everybody’s religious needs can avert the sort of resentment which in turn could breed racism, notes James Debono

Two weeks ago, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority issued an enforcement order against “Dar Tal-Islam” – a Muslim place of worship situated in a block of flats next to the Preluna Hotel. In August MEPA had issued a similar enforcement order against a make shift mosque in Bugibba.
MEPA’s latest enforcement notice – the third served upon the same place over the past six years – studiously avoids any reference to “religion” or “worship”, focusing instead on the questionable change of use of a residential place “into a place of gathering.”
But the decree is already being contested by the Muslim tenants who have presented a judicial protest in court against the MEPA notice. For his part, the conciliatory leader of the Islamic community, Imam Muhammed El Sadi, is praying for a solution which respects both Maltese laws and the religious needs of Muslims.
Speaking to MaltaToday, residents living next to the makeshift Bugibba mosque complained about noise, especially on Fridays, and the disturbance created by worshippers who take off their shoes and leave them outside the ground floor apartment.
“We are not racists but nobody would like the ground floor of his apartment block used for gatherings of worshippers, irrespective of their creed,” a resident told MaltaToday.
Contacted by MaltaToday, the leader of the Muslim community in Malta made it clear that he does not condone anything which is against the law. But in view of the increase in the Muslim population, which according to the Imam has reached the 5,000 mark, a solution which “respects the law must be found” to ensure that the religious needs of Muslims are also respected, Imam El Sadi says.
“Every locality has two or more churches. Muslims have only one mosque in which to pray. People from localities like Sliema and Bugibba find it difficult to come to Paola to say their prayers.”
El Sadi also highlighted the fact that Muslims need to pray five times a day and that they have to clean themselves before praying.
Apart from the Paola mosque, at present there are four other places for Muslims to pray. These are Dar tal-Islam in Sliema, the other makeshift prayer room in St Paul’s Bay, and two other places of worship, both intended for asylum seekers, located in the Marsa and Safi open centres.
MaltaToday is informed that Dar l-Islam in Sliema is rented out to the Muslim tenants. The case was further complicated by allegations that the former owner of the building was renting the place to Muslims simply to annoy the other tenants in the block.
Recently, MEPA approved a change of use to allow the present owners to use the place as an office and a storage area. But the place is still being used by the Muslim community.
“The place is not a mosque but a prayer room. A mosque is a place where Muslims can marry and fulfil other obligations. This place is only used for prayer,” one of the Muslims frequenting Dar tal-Islam told MaltaToday.
He also disputed MEPA’s claim that any illegality is taking place.
“Anyone can invite guests in his own home to pray. This is not illegal.”
He also observed that many other private residences are also used by Christian prayer groups or non religious clubs, and no enforcement is taken against them.
Writing in MaltaToday in 2005, MEPA auditor Joe Falzon gave a clear definition on what constitutes a public place of worship and when the Planning Authority should require a change of use.
“If a place is open to the general public for specific times of the day where anybody can enter and participate in the activities carried out, whether religious or otherwise, then a change of use application is necessary. If the activity is limited to a number of acquaintances and their guests who use the premises for their activities, then obviously no change of use application is necessary.”
Yet the distinction between a private and a public place of worship has eluded MEPA for the past six years.
Dar tal-Islam was first served with an enforcement order in 2001. The original notice was issued for change of use of premises into religious activity. The case was mysteriously closed in November 2004 when “no further activities were noted.” Another enforcement order was issued by MEPA in 2004 against “the fixing of two signs without permit.” The signs were subsequently removed, and the case was once again closed.
In August, MEPA issued another enforcement notice calling on the tenant of a small ground floor flat to stop using the same residence as a “place of worship”. On this occasion Environment Minister George Pullicino himself had advised MEPA to proceed carefully because the case involved religious sentiments that could be offended.
With the Imam insisting on full respect of legality and the government sensitive to the religious needs of Muslims, the escalation of what is essentially a planning issue into a veritable clash of civilizations could still be avoided.


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