Poland's Muslims thrive in tiny community
With all the sensitivity surrounding all things Muslim, a small Muslim community manages to live and interact peacefully among Catholics in Poland.
Warsaw -- Warsaw's only mosque, with its arched brick entrance, lies in a quiet suburb and hardly stands out from the surrounding homes.
Inside, the mosque serves as the spiritual centre for Warsaw is tiny Muslim community: many of whom had slowly made their homes in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation -- very few can trace their Polish roots back for centuries.
Friday Prayer services in Warsaw can draw up to 300 people. There are Arabic lessons on Saturdays, a halal food store next door and an Islamic Cultural Centre that offers booklets on Islam translated to the Polish language.
Switching between Polish and his native Syrian dialect, Imam Nezar Charif answers the telephone calls before leading the evening prayer during Ramadan. He tells a Polish woman the proper time to break the day-long fast, shares a joke in Arabic with a visitor and supervises renovations going on in the hall.
Before the three story family home was converted into a mosque in 1991, Warsaw's Muslims gathered for prayers inside the Egyptian embassy or rented out a dance hall before its nightly discotheque.
Now the mosque is so crowded there is talk of building another downtown to accommodate Muslims who work in the city.
Most estimate that Poland holds approximately 30,000 Muslims - less than 0.1 percent of the population -- and is expected to grow. The Muslim community in Warsaw range from 5,000 to 7,000 and comprise businessmen, political refugees and students who remained behind during the1980s.
Charif came from Damascus to study at university in 1982 when Poland was under communist rule and viewed as a relatively cheap country by Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan immigrants. Most of them returned to their homelands after graduation but Charif stayed after he married a Polish woman.
Those who arrived during the 1970s and 1980s now make up a small percentage of Warsaw's Muslims, with many today coming from Turkey, Syria, Pakistan and Chechnya. Most of Warsaw's Muslims comprise a handful of Poles who converted after marrying Muslims and a few who became Muslims on their own accord.
Outside Warsaw, Poland boasts two historic mosques from the 17th and 18th century built in the villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany, which were settlements of Poland's first Muslims in the 14th century.
The Tartars made their home in the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth and practiced Islam freely in exchange for military service.
Their communities once numbered some 17,000 people however, as a result of many Tatar descendants having moved to cities for work, today only a dozen families remain.
Some 2,000 Muslim Tatars live in Poland, said Bronislaw Talkowski, who heads a Muslim community organization in Kruszyniany. Although the village is largely Catholic and conservative, Talkowski says there is more tolerance there than in many cosmopolitan cities.
"Tatars settled in Kruszyniany at the end of the 17th century -- locals know the Tatars from that time," Talkowski said. "And there's no animosity between Catholics and Muslims like you read about in certain places. That doesn't happen here."
But Muslims remain a tiny minority in a country that is 96 percent Catholic and who have rarely lived alongside immigrants.
Warsaw does not have the large immigrant groups of cities like London or Paris. Furthermore, during the communist era, Poland saw more people wanting to leave than enter.
Today, the country is slowly becoming a likelier destination for immigrants, especially after it joined the European Union in 2004. But for many Poles outside larger cities, foreigners are still a strange sight.
Charif says most in Poland's capital city are tolerant and reports only a few isolated incidents that peaked after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, which soon diminished.
Even though women, who wear the hijab or veil, can face more harassment because they are visibly Muslim, Charif says they report only rare incidents that are mostly brought about by elderly or drunk Poles.
"They're rare but they happen," Charif says. "There's others who feel stress and are aggressive."
"But," added Charif reassuringly, "our religion says if there are people that want to laugh, you pass by them and make your ears like a tunnel. It passes from one side and comes out the other."