St Paul’s Bay council files police report over Muslim prayers

Mayor says council has not objected against presence of Christian praying centres in locality because residents have not complained 

St Paul's Bay mayor Graziella Galea
St Paul's Bay mayor Graziella Galea

St Paul’s Bay is home to countless bars, restaurants and hotels, and thanks to the low rents it probably is the most ethnically diverse locality in Malta. 

It is also the favourite destination of thousands of tourists who spend their time getting sunburnt on the rocky beaches and drunk in the various pubs and karaoke bars in Bugibba and Qawra. 

But the diversity has not hindered the local council in objecting to a planning application for the conversion of a garage into a Muslim prayer room: the decision was unanimous because, according to the council, this will have a detrimental effect on residents and the tourism industry. 

Mayor Graziella Galea said the council unanimously agreed to oppose the permit, because the proposed prayer room was inadequate for worship, and would create a hindrance to public order and increase problems of parking space.

Asked by MaltaToday whether the council had similar reservations over other places of worship in the locality, including chapels and prayer rooms used by religious groups belonging to various Christian denominations, Galea said “so far residents have not complained. But if they do complain we will take the necessary action.”

Claiming that the prayers are “illegal,” Galea said that the council has filed an official police report to stop the Muslim prayers from taking place in the premises in Triq il-Mazzola in Bugibba.

During the council meeting, a representative from the Malta Muslim Council Foundation (MMCF), Bader Zeina, urged all parties to come together and find a solution. 

However, speaking to MaltaToday, Galea said that this was not the council’s responsibility and she called on the authorities to find an alternative premises for the Muslim community. 

Speaking to this newspaper, Zeina said that the Muslim community in the area has grown to such an extent that they had to split them and hold two different praying sessions to accommodate everyone. 

“Right now we need to cater for some 400 people in St Paul’s Bay,” Zeina said, adding that the MMCF was doing its utmost to find a solution.

“People ask why we do not purchase a property or a plot to build a place of worship but this is the second time a local council objected to a planning application for a change of use of a building into a prayer hall. We cannot make big financial commitments without having a guarantee that the permit will be issued, especially since we completely rely on donations,” Zeina said. 

He added that the immediate neighbours of the garage in Bugibba had never complained and insisted that the regularisation of Muslim places of worship is vital because the foundation is “the frontline defence against any possible threat of radicalisation.”

“We are an independent group, we do not receive any funding from foreign countries or organisations. We are mostly Maltese citizens who abide by the laws of the country and we are under no foreign influence,” Zeina said.

Zeina – himself a Maltese citizen – said that years ago the community 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 Planning Authority 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. 

The Muslim community had a similar application turned down by the Planning Authority some 10 years ago for the change of use of another venue, in St Paul’s Bay.

A lack of premises had led the MMCF to hold prayers in the Msida garden opposite the church, leading to protests by Islamophobic and right-wing groups. 

A stopgap solution was found after the education ministry offered the foundation the Ospizio complex in Floriana, where prayers are still held on Fridays and where the MMCF have their temporary offices. 

An offer is on the table to sign a one-year contract over the premises in Floriana but the deal has been stalled since the foundation has not yet been officially recognised by the government.

“We have applied to have the foundation recognised for almost a year but the government notary has so far refused to give her go ahead. Once we are recognised as a foundation we’ll be able to sign the contract as a foundation and not as individuals,” Zeina said. 

A separate application for a change of use of a garage in Msida is in limbo, with the Planning Authority refusing to put the application on hold while the MMCF is officially recognised.