The Grand Mufti of Cyprus met President Demetris Christofias at the presidential palace yesterday to discuss ways to open the Hala Sultan Tekke in Larnaca to daily prayers instead of keeping "museum hours" for Greek Cyprus's preeminent mosque.
Speaking after the meeting, the mosque's imam Shakir Alemdar said: "We agreed to meet again to discuss the path towards peace on this island. We both wish for the island to become a peaceful example to the entire world."
The imam said Christofias spoke to the visiting delegation about his efforts towards achieving peace in Cyprus "and we told him we support his efforts", he said, adding, "We also spoke about some bureaucratic issues we are facing".
Alemdar told the Cyprus Mail that there are more than 140 mosques in the government-controlled areas, of which about eight are in use.
"Our main concern is the Hala Sultan Tekke, which is open every day for prayers but only during museum hours, from 8am to 5pm, not mosque hours. Outside those hours I need to secure special permission from the Interior Ministry, for example during Ramadan when there are nightly prayers for a month.
"The ministry does its best to help us, but why should I apply for permission to pray in my mosque?" he asked.
Alemdar was appointed by the ministry in 2008 to provide a regular service at the mosque after restoration work on the holy site was completed in 2005. In a rare example of mutual acceptance, the imam's position in charge of the mosque was also recently recognised by Turkish Cypriot religious authorities in the north. "We are a good example of peaceful living," he said.
However, providing a service during Islam's five daily prayers has not been so easy. The times are spread out throughout the day, starting from dawn to late at night, making the imam's work somewhat difficult as he's locked out before 8am and after 5pm.
"I am not happy that the Hala Sultan Tekke is under the administration of the Antiquities Department. It is the most important Muslim place of worship on the island. If you recognise it as an important place of worship why close it down and go home at 5pm? As the imam, they kick me out after 5pm. It's not right."
According to Alemdar, the president's response to his request was "very positive".
"He agreed with us and said what is right should be done. He was very supportive and I am confident we will have constructive steps taken," said the imam.
Alemdar highlighted that Muslims "have a good history of co-existence with our Christian neighbours, friends and brothers. Just because the majority of the Muslim population moved north in 1974, this does not mean Islam has stopped in Cyprus, it still needs to be looked after and not by the antiquities department".
Asked about the number of visitors wishing to pray at the mosque, the imam said this was "irrelevant", adding: "As the imam, I want free access. We are talking about freedom of worship, the rights of the clergy and of the community."
Friday prayers, the biggest day in the week in Islam, can attract up to 200 people. Alemdar preaches in English as most who attend prayers are Arab, Bangladeshi or Pakistani, with some English and Germans also showing up.
"Not many Turks live in Larnaca," he said. However, hundreds of Turkish Cypriots visit the Tekke in a convoy of buses from the north each year to mark Islam's big holy days.
A lot of people using Larnaca airport also wish to visit the site before or after a flight but due to the current hours are not always able, said Alemdar.
"Freedom to worship sought at Hala Sultan Tekke" Cyprus Mail December 16, 2011
"Cyprus - The President of the Republic received the Representative of the Grand Mufti of Cyprus and Imam of Hala Sultan Tekke" ISRIA December 16, 2011
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today