Muslim community calls on authorities to grant permits for places of worship

Council spokesperson Bader Zina explained that the community has been desperately trying to hold prayers in regularised venues but the authorities have obstinately refused to grant planning permissions. 

The ministry has confirmed that it is in contact with the council but when asked whether the Msida gatherings highlight the need for further praying spaces it said that “it is not up to the ministry to assess such a need or otherwise.” Photo: Chris Mangion
The ministry has confirmed that it is in contact with the council but when asked whether the Msida gatherings highlight the need for further praying spaces it said that “it is not up to the ministry to assess such a need or otherwise.” Photo: Chris Mangion

The sight of some 500 Muslims praying in public in Msida has caused a stir in recent weeks and the organisers are well aware of the public’s concerns. 

Freedom of worship is a right enshrined in the Constitution but the reasons behind the Malta Muslim Council’s decision to hold Friday prayers in public in Msida goes beyond exercising their rights.

Council spokesperson Bader Zina explained that the community has been desperately trying to hold prayers in regularised venues but the authorities have obstinately refused to grant planning permissions. 

“Over the years we have applied for planning permissions for a number of venues, with the latest being refused in August of last year,” Zina said.

Speaking to MaltaToday yesterday afternoon, Zina – a Maltese citizen – said that the council had filed an application for the change of use of a large garage in Sta Venera, but despite being given the green light by the MEPA case officer, the permit was blocked after the local council objected to the change of use to turn the site into a multi-purpose hall.

“The council filed two main objections, namely the increase in traffic and because they determined that the venue would be used as a mosque.” 

He added that the Muslim council had a similar application turned down by MEPA some 10 years ago for the change of use of another venue, in St Paul’s Bay.

However, the final straw for the council came late last year when MEPA closed down a premises which was being used for prayers in Msida. 

“A few days before Christmas we were informed that the premises we were renting out in Msida would be closed down and we were even told that if this wasn’t done within 15 days we would be fined,” Zina said.

He added that MEPA closed the place down despite previously informing the venue’s owner that this would not happen.

“Moreover, when we asked for some breathing space to allow us to apply for a change of use permit this was rejected.”

During talks with MEPA CEO Johann Buttigieg and officials from the social dialogue and civil liberties ministry, Zina was told that the garage was being closed down. 

“MEPA acted according to the country’s laws and we have absolutely no problem with this,” he said, adding that the Muslim council did not have time to apply for a change of use permit as this happened over the Christmas holidays when MEPA was on shut-down. 

He added that the option to rent out existing multi-purpose halls is remote because of the limited spaces available and the prohibitive prices. 

The ministry has confirmed that it is in contact with the council but when asked whether the Msida gatherings highlight the need for further praying spaces it said that “it is not up to the ministry to assess such a need or otherwise.”

“In Malta, there are various religious denominations that operate freely, and their right to freedom of religion is guaranteed. All are free to make use of their own or rent multi-purpose venues for purposes of religious functions.”

Asked why the council does not make use of the Paola mosque, he said that Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day and this must be done collectively. Muslims pray ordinarily at five particular times each day according to the sun’s sky path and the Friday prayers are particularly important. This congregational prayer is held every Friday, just after noon. 

“One cannot fulfil these obligations by having one solitary mosque. We have people living or working in say Mellieha, and travelling to Paola takes up a lot of time, especially if you do so by bus.”

Additionally, the Paola mosque is too small for the Muslim community in Malta and in response to the pictures being shared on social media sites showing an open space at the back of the mosque, Zina said this is used as a car park during prayers.

In response to criticism that the prayers in Msida are being held opposite a church, Zina said the location was chosen because of it being central and it allows people living and working in the vicinity to reach it by bus. But Zina said that if the authorities withdraw the permit the council would abide by the law. 

While pointing out that the authorities are lenient with a number of Christian groups who hold events in a number of venues without having the necessary permits, Zina said that the council would like to provide small and regularised spaces of worship in different localities to cater for the growing Muslim community.

Zina said that during a recent meeting with social dialogue minister Helena Dalli he made it clear that the council could play an important role in community building.

“The minister expressed her concern at the possible radicalisation of individuals and I underlined the importance of regularising the premises which we rent. We are the frontline defence against any possible threat.”

Members of the council, responsible for a number of praying centres spread around the island, have long played an important educational and social role, organising and participating in a number of charity events and Zina said that the council is predominantly made up of Maltese citizens who have the same obligations and rights as anyone else. 

“The community is growing and for this reason we have urged the minister to carry out a study on the needs of Muslims in Malta.”

Human rights activists slam Islamophobia 

Human rights lawyer and Aditus Foundation director Neil Falzon said Malta endorses the freedom of all persons to choose and practise the religion of their choice. 

“We are understandably comfortable with mass prayer meetings, the rosary being recited on street speakers, on village feasts. But just as these religious manifestations are allowed, so are groups of praying Muslims, a Hindu Diwali festival, a demonstration demanding increased secularism, Chinese New Year celebrations. Malta might be unprepared, but this does not justify any form of limitations or negative attitudes,” he said.

In similar comments, Integra Foundation director Maria Pisani said the Muslims praying in Msida have not overstepped the mark. “I am far more concerned by the Islamophobic manifestations. I understand the fear people may be feeling in light of extremist violence and ideologies, and such fears are justified – however, if we really want to hold on to the values of respect, rule of law, equality and so on – then our response needs to be informed by such values too. The biggest threat to Maltese ‘values’ is an extremist response fuelled by fear and hysteria – be it Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical or otherwise.

More in National

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition

Subscribe