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Latin America's First Mega-Mosque

Latin America's First Mega-Mosque Opens Eyes To Islam
By Chris Moss
Islam Online

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Islam Online) - Residents of Palermo, a large
middle-class district in Buenos Aires, are used to seeing their skyline
change. New high-rise apartment towers, enormous shopping malls, shiny gas
stations and U.S.-style fast food outlets are constantly erupting between
the parks and plazas that represent an older, more leisurely city.
But now a different kind of building has appeared right in the heart of
this traditional neighborhood, occupying an eight-acre triangle between
the Jumbo superstore and the Le Parc tower where soccer star Diego
Maradona and other assorted celebrities keep apartments. If at first it
looked like just another construction site, there was soon little doubt
that the vast enterprise, with its minarets, window screens, sun-drenched
patios and 50 meter-high ceramic white dome was something special.

But Buenos Aires wasn't getting some quirky theme mall or amusement
center; it was witnessing the arrival of the biggest mosque in Latin
America, a Saudi Arabian project with the personal backing of King Fahd.

Passengers on the commuter trains passing close by stare out bemused by
the size and strangeness of the building, which is only now emerging from
the piles of sand and cement and scaffolding rigs. In fact, the land was
owned by the state railways, until ex-President Carlos Menem agreed to
hand it over to the Saudi Arabian Islamic Affairs Department.

In a city in which every square meter of wasteland not bought up for
residential use quickly becomes a business location, the appearance of a
mosque is something of an event. That the land is in a prime residential
area can be taken as a signal from King Fahd and the Muslim community that
Islam wants a high profile even in countries where the vast majority of
the population is Roman Catholics and who view Islam as something rather
exotic and far removed.

The project, hatched in 1995, was strongly supported by then-President
Menem, who stepped down on December 10 last year. While the construction
costs, amounting to some $15 million, are being met by King Fahd, the
land, valued at $10 million, was donated by the Argentine government. As
the Islamic Center covers an area that would allow the construction of
four or five tower blocks, the actual value of the donation could be far
higher.

As well as the main mosque, which has a capacity for 1,000 faithful, the
complex will boast school buildings, art galleries, dormitories, a
cultural center, a sports field and a caf, as well as apartments for two
imams and its own underground car park.

Though there is already a mosque in the capital, as well as numerous
Islamic institutions in the interior, the King Fahd Center is a major
event for Argentine Muslims. Estimates put the community at some 700,000,
most of whom are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who came to
Argentina from 1850 onwards. Anibal Bachir, secretary-general of the
Argentine Islamic Community, is optimistic about the new venture. "Arabs
are, after all, the third largest community in Argentina after Italians
and Spaniards, and we hope the Fahd Center will be a cultural meeting
place, a nexus between Islam and other beliefs. It may help to correct
certain errors about women, The Qur'an and other principles of Islam and
counter those sometimes propagated by the media, who tend to highlight the
extremists."

Some neighbors have objected to having a mosque in their backyard for
aesthetic reasons, but the architect Carranza, who has had to learn the
terms and techniques of Middle Eastern architecture, with its mihrabs
(pulpits), qiblas (prayer direction) and masjids (mosques), claims, "In
Buenos Aires you can build anything. All kinds of styles already live
side-by-side because of past immigration and as for those who wanted
another green space, beside the fact that they already have so many, they
can rest assured that the Fahd Center, which is open to the public, will
give them far more space and light than a residential tower block."

At the present time, the site is hectic as 400 builders work round the
clock, with daytime temperatures in the mid-thirties. There is still
plastering and painting to do, the palm trees need planting and the
fountains plumbing in, while the ornaments and a Moroccan carpet for the
mosque are due to arrive any day now.

Dissenting Voices

Not everyone is happy to see the arrival of the giant mosque in the center
of the city. In addition to the complaints about architectural disharmony
and the traffic problems the mosque will create in an already congested
area, there have been more serious criticisms on religious, political and
also financial grounds.

Though the Congress passed the bill approving the construction of the Fahd
Center, many see the projects as a legacy of Menem's penchant for helping
Arab and pro-Muslim causes; Menem is often referred to as "el turco" (the
Turk), a nickname widely-used in Argentina for anyone with Middle Eastern
family connections. Meanwhile, some Christians have voiced their
complaints at the Saudi government's unwillingness to let other religions
build temples and centers on its homeland and have also taken the
Argentine authorities to task for failing to support other creeds with
cash or land.

Since the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA
Argentine-Israeli cultural association in 1994, which together claimed 114
lives and remain unsolved in the Argentine courts, there has been
considerable anti-Arab feeling among Argentines, who until the tragedies
saw themselves as safely outside the centers of world terrorism. The large
Argentine Jewish population and many non-Jews feel that the previous
government failed to bring the terrorists to justice because the local
police are implicated in the affair. Most of the suspicion has been
directed at Iran or Iran-backed groups, but Menem's Syrian ancestry as
well as the involvement of several Arabs in corruption and even murder
scandals has led to a fogging of issues.

Leaders of other religions see the project as a positive step for a
nominally Catholic but in fact increasingly secularized society and
Christians have expressed their hope that the incoming imams will be
pluralist and moderate. Argentina has already seen a weakening of the old
church-state relationship and a law passed in 1994 now allows the
Argentine president to be a non-Catholic (Menem himself had to be
confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church to take office).

In spite of the various dissenting voices and the general ignorance about
the Islamic faith, Muslims are optimistic about the mosque's significance
for the future of Islam in South America. Jaffar Ali, who maintains a web
page for Spanish-speaking Muslims, sees Buenos Aires as an ideal location
for spreading a positive, unbiased image of Islam. "People here have an
opportunity to see the Islamic world with particular objectivity. Whereas
many countries were affected by colonization and decolonization during The
last two centuries, Argentina and her neighbors were not. If Islam is for
the moment unexplored in this country, the two thin minarets of the new
mosque will alert people to its existence and a new bond will be created
between Islam and Latin America."

From Islam Online