By Besiana Xharra
An illegal construction boom that has carpeted Kosovo’s cities and villages with unlicensed buildings is not confined to homes and shops.
A survey of Kosovo municipalities by Balkan Insight has revealed that more than 100 mosques have been built without planning permission in the past ten years.
To date, action has been taken against just one illegal mosque and local authorities told Balkan Insight they are hesitant about committing themselves to removing such buildings in the future.
The Islamic Community of Kosovo, BIK, through various funding channels, has been reconstructing 113 war-damaged mosques, as well building as 155 new places of worship, since 1999. An investigation by Balkan Insight can reveal that almost all have been erected illegally.
“We have repaired or rebuilt 113 of those [mosques] 218 destroyed during the war,” says Sabri Bajgora of the BIK. “Besides those, we have also built another 155 news mosques by the end of 2010, and are currently building another 20.”
Balkan Insight has researched the situation in Kosovo’s seven largest municipalities: Pristina, Prizren, Urosevac/Ferizaj, Pec/Peja, Djakovica/Gjakova, Gnjilane/Gjilan and Mitrovica.
Each town or city hall acknowledged that illegal mosques have been erected under their jurisdiction, especially in rural areas, though some refused to provide exact figures.
Prizren, city of illegal minarets:
Prizren is fabled for its ancient Ottoman architecture, but is now becoming better known for its skyline of garish illegal minarets that have been springing up since 1999.
The city council told Balkan Insight that that 70 per cent of the mosques in the city had no planning permission. Kosovo’s Islamic community said Prizren is home to the highest number of mosques in the country, 77.
If the municipal figures are accurate, this would put the number of illegal mosques in Prizren at 54. Director of urban planning Sadik Paçarizi said: “Of all religious objects, such as Catholic or Orthodox churches, mosques are those that violate the law most.
About 70 per cent of mosques in the municipality have no building permit.” He added that a plan had been drawn up to knock down the illegal mosques but had been shelved pending a resolution of the broader problems of illegal builds in the city.
Gjilan mayor Qemajl Mustafa admits that in his municipality almost all mosques built since the war lack building permits. But he said that since he became mayor in 2007 the situation had improved.
“From the time I became mayor, this phenomenon has stopped because we have made an agreement with BIK on this issue,” he said. “Now they apply for permits before starting to build any new mosque,” Mustafa added.He confirmed that no illegally built mosque had been destroyed, however.
In the western city of Gjakova, not a single illegal mosque has been tackled since the end of the 1999 conflict.
“The reason I didn’t want to destroy any of these illegal buildings is because such buildings are considered sacred and of benefit to citizens,” Gjakova mayor Pal Lekaj said.
The director of urban planning in Peja, Gazmend Muhaxhirim, said he had no figures about illegal constructions but admitted that some mosques had been built without permits.
“Some illegal mosques were built since the war but recently builders have started to seek permission from the municipality,” he said. “At the moment we are already dealing with several such applications.”
Officials at Ferizaj and Mitrovica declined to comment on the issue.
Not a priority in Pristina:
Pristina municipality told Balkan Insight that it had destroyed one unplanned mosque four years ago while it was still under construction.
Despite this action, another illegal mosque was rebuilt on the same site. Muhamet Gashi, acting director of inspections, said that given the city’s overall problems with illegal construction, mosques were not a priority.
“We have no plans right now to destroy any illegal mosques as we are awaiting approval of a law on how to handle illegal buildings, and then all illegal buildings, together with mosques, will be reviewed,” Gashi said.
“Pristina municipality has given permission for the restoration of mosques, but not for new ones,” he added.The issue is particular sensitive in Pristina as the Islamic community this year has protested about the municipality’s failure to find what they consider a suitable spot for a new city-centre mosque.
They complain that their situation is markedly different to that of the city’s small Catholic community. The city hall offered them a prime location for a new cathedral, which opened last year.
Muhamet Gashi said that the municipality had already issued the BIK a permit to build on a large plot on the edge of the city centre. But the BIK has so far rejected this.
“The issue has stalled. We don’t have any other places to offer, so we haven’t made any further progress,” said Gashi. Sabri Bajgora said their demands for a city-centre location had nothing to do with the position of the new cathedral; it was a question of ease of access.
“The site [offered] near the PTK [Post and Telecommunications] is not good because it is a small site and is not in the centre,” he said. “The best place to build a big mosque remains near Pristina University, in front of the Albanology Institute.
“This is the best place but we haven’t agreed yet with municipality. We are now waiting for another answer from them, but until now nothing has happened.”
Behxhet Shala, director of the Council for Human Rights, says the reason why Kosovo mayors have not tackled illegal mosques is that it could be construed as an attack on religious freedom.
He added that the skeletal Orthodox church in the park surrounding Pristina University has also not been touched since construction began in the mid-1990s.
“If that illegal church had been destroyed immediately after the  war, it would have set an example for other illegal buildings and for the BIK too,” Shala said.
“Now it is difficult to deal with them.”According to him, however, this issue must be addressed at some point.Sabri Bajgora of the BIK admits that mosques have been built without planning permission.
“To be honest, mostly in villages, some mosques are built without permission from municipalities. But no mosque is built without our permission,” he said.Bahri Sejdiu, head of the BIK for Pristina, also admits that most mosques in the city centre have no building permit, but blames the municipality for the omission.
“Most Pristina mosques have been built without permission because the municipality sits on such requests for months,” Sejdiu said.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.