With just one mosque, Belgrade's Muslims are forced to improvise

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Muslims improvise as requests for more mosques denied
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Muslims improvise as requests for more mosques denied
Muslims pray on a street in front of an illegally built mosque which was destroyed in the district of Zemun Polje in Belgrade, Serbia, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
An Imam delivers a speech inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Sremcica in Belgrade, Serbia, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An Imam reads the Koran inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Vozdovac in Belgrade, Serbia, September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims pray during Friday prayers inside a makeshift mosque in the district of Borca in Belgrade, Serbia, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslim women inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Borca in Belgrade, Serbia, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims pray during Friday prayers inside a makeshift mosque in the district of Borca in Belgrade, Serbia, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims pray inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Vozdovac in Belgrade, Serbia, September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A muslim man prays inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Zemun in Belgrade, Serbia, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An Imam delivers a speech during Friday prayers inside a makeshift mosque in the district of Borca in Belgrade, Serbia, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims listen to an Imam's speech inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Sremcica in Belgrade, Serbia, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims pray inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Zemun in Belgrade, Serbia, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A muslim man prays inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Zemun in Belgrade, Serbia, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims leave a makeshift mosque after Friday prayers in the district of Sremcica in Belgrade, Serbia, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslim girls stand in front of a makeshift mosque before Friday prayers in the district of Zemun in Belgrade, Serbia, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims pray inside a makeshift mosque during Friday prayers in the district of Vozdovac in Belgrade, Serbia, September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A muslim man leaves a makeshift mosque after Friday prayers in the district of Sremcica in Belgrade, Serbia, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslim women pray in front of Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade, Serbia, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims leave a makeshift mosque after Friday prayers in the district of Ledine in Belgrade, Serbia, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims leave a makeshift mosque after Fridays prayer in the district of Borca in Belgrade, Serbia, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims prepare to pray on a street in front of an illegally built mosque which was destroyed in the district of Zemun Polje in Belgrade, Serbia, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Muslims arrive for Friday prayers in the district of Zemun in Belgrade, Serbia, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The Bajrakli mosque is seen in the district of Dorcol in Belgrade, Serbia, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Girls stand at the entrance of a makeshift mosque before Friday prayers in the district of Ledine in Belgrade, Serbia, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims attend a dinner in front of Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade, Serbia, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims attend evening prayer at the Bajrakli mosque in the district of Dorcol in Belgrade, Serbia July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Muslims attend evening prayer at the Bajrakli mosque in the district of Dorcol in Belgrade, Serbia July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH "DJURICA MOSQUE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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BELGRADE, Nov 15 (Reuters) - In the shadow of a demolished mosque, three dozen men gathered in a house in a gloomy district of northern Belgrade. The Muslim call to prayer drifted out through the open door.

"This was a family home. We can pray in it, but it's (the building) not legal," said Hilmija, a 47-year-old Muslim and member of Serbia's Roma minority, as he entered. "It's humiliating."

The house – and the ruins it stands next to – represent just some of the ad hoc efforts of around 20,000 Muslims in the Serbian capital to gather in worship in a city which is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian.

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Belgrade has one mosque – dating from 1575 when the city was part of the Ottoman Turkish empire – and it has a fraught relationship with Islam.

Many Muslims left during the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, when Serbia backed its ethnic kin in Bosnia in the massacre of Muslim Bosniaks and fought a counter-insurgency war in its own southern province of Kosovo against mainly Muslim Albanians.

The shortage of Belgrade mosques was thrown into sharp relief this year when authorities tore down a makeshift mosque in the northern district of Zemun Polje on the eve of Ramadan in May.

Local Muslims initially came out in protest to block the demolition, but the bulldozers returned with a police escort after dark. All that is left is a jumbled mass of broken concrete and twisted rebars. Muslims now gather in prayer in the house next door and in other private homes around the city.

The Islamic community in Serbia says Belgrade authorities have repeatedly ignored requests for new mosques to be built and says the shortage raises questions about the country's commitment to minority rights, an important gauge of its readiness for membership of the European Union.

The EU, which Serbia is negotiating to join, has taken notice, warning in a 2016 progress report: "The rights of persons belonging to a national minority to establish and register religious institutions, build and use places of worship need to be fully guaranteed in practice."

European Commission officials did not reply to requests for comment.

The Secretariat for Urban Planning in Belgrade's city hall denied blocking construction of new mosques, saying it had no record of any building requests from the Islamic Community of Serbia.

Mufti Muhamed Hamdi Jusufspahic, head of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Community of Serbia, said Serbia's byzantine bureaucracy and suspicion of Islam meant the cards were stacked against them.

"We've sought permits on a number of occasions for a number of locations, for decades ... but we never reached the point of even qualifying to submit papers," he told Reuters.

"Every request would be put in the drawer."

The Serbian justice ministry said it was unaware of any problem.

"Serbia fulfills all EU criteria on securing religious rights and liberties, along with provisions from the constitution," Mileta Radojevic, who heads the ministry's department for cooperation with religious communities, said in an email to Reuters.

In total, Serbia is home to around 230,000 Muslims, accounting for some 3.1 percent of the population, concentrated mainly in the southwestern Sandzak region that borders Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

In 2004, in response to a wave of Albanian attacks on minority Serbs in Kosovo, rioters set the Belgrade mosque ablaze and torched another in the southern city of Nis. Both have since been restored.

Emin Zejnulahu, mufti of the demolished mosque in Zemun Polje, said Muslims would not be deterred.

"We must practice our religion, regardless of the obstacles," he said. "We have to be good neighbors to everyone, regardless of their faith and nationality."

Related: See stunning mosques from around the globe: 

29 PHOTOS
Beautiful Mosques from around the world
See Gallery
Beautiful Mosques from around the world

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morrocco

Photo: Bashar Amin Shglila via Getty Images 

Dome of the Rock  in Jerusalem, Israel 

photo: Yoram Lehmann via Getty Images 

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, Saudi Arabia 

photo: Shutterstock

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

photo: TomasSereda via Getty Images 

The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in United Arab Emirates , Abu Dhabi

photo: Joel Addams via Getty Images 

The Great Mosque in Kano, Nigeria

photo: Diane Rawson via Getty Images 

Masjid Sultan in Singapore 

photo: MIXA via Getty Images 

Imam Khomeini Mosque in Isfahan, Iran

photo: SEUX Paule/ hemis.fr via Getty Images 

Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

photo: Igor Konovalov via Getty Images 

The Grand Mosque of Paris, France

photo: Rrrainbow via Getty Images 

Jalil Khayat Mosque in Erbil, Iraq

photo: Jane Sweeney via Getty Images

Putra Mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia

photo: Arief Rasa via Getty Images 

Malacca Straits Mosque in Melacca, Malaysia

photo: Shutterstock

Agha Bozog Mosque in Kashan, Iraq

photo: Shutterstock

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

photo: Erwin Bolwidt/Flickr

Masjid Zahir Mosque in Alor Setar, Malaysia

photo: stevec77/Flickr

Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan

photo: schaazzz/Flickr

Taj-Ul Mosque in Bhopal, India

photo: -AX-/Flickr

Badshani Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan

photo: Tim Graham/Alamy

 Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria

Photo: Robert Preston Photography / Alamy

Umayyad Mosque, Grand Mosque in Aleppo, Syria

Photo: imagebroker / Alamy

 La Mezquita of Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain

Photo: Matteo Colombo via Getty Images

QolSarif Mosque, Kazan, Russia

photo: David Forman via Getty Images

Bursa Grand Mosque in Bursa, Turkey.

Photo: Shutterstock

Crystal Mosque in Terengganu, Malaysia 

photo: Shutterstock

Great Mosque of Xi'an in  Shaanxi, China

photo: Jane Sweeney via Getty Images

Sakirin Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

photo: Izzet Keribar via Getty Images 

Mosque in Cologne, Germany 

Photo: ROLF VENNENBERND/AFP/GettyImages

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