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Czech Republic's tiny Muslim community subject to hate

Czech Republic's tiny Muslim community subject to hate
From Al Jazeera - November 13, 2017

Prague, Czech Republic - Walking along the idyllic streets of Prague just blocks away from the famed Wenceslas Square, 38-year-old Palestinian-born Raed Shaikh stopped to point out a halal grocery store he and the handful of other Muslim residents in town frequent.

He then motioned towards a Middle Eastern restaurant to the right, hidden behind a small mosque.

"Here is the highest concentration of Muslims in Prague," the IT project manager said laughingly.

Though no exact figures exist, the Muslim community in the Czech Republic is small, between 5,000 and 20,000, or less than 0.02 percent of the total population.

Just a portion lives in Prague.

Yet Islam has become a hot-button topic in Czech national politics, where the power to resolve the country's hung parliament could lie with a politician whose only policy is, "No to Islam. No to terrorism".

Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura and hisFreedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) rode into parliament as the third most powerful party after the recent October nationwide elections, with no discernible policy other than to drive Islam completely out of the Czech Republic.

The campaign slogan was convincing enough for the newly formed SPD to scoop significant votes in its first ever electoral race.

Having built ties to other far-right movements in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen's National Front in France, Okamura hopes to achieve his goal through ongoing coalition talks with controversial billionaire Andrej Babis, who is slated to become the country's next prime minister.

Babis' Action of Dissatisfied Citizens Party (ANO) won the October elections in decisive fashion but did not secure a simple majority. Now he must form a coalition with a fragmented parliament that has expressed little willingness to work with the populist agro-magnate who at the time of the elections was being investigated for fraud.

Muslims quit country amid rising Islamophobia

Some Muslims in Prague fear that the circumstances may lead to an alliance with Okamura, giving him an unprecedented platform - a worrying prospect given ANO and SPD's common disdain for Muslim refugees.

"We have to fight for what our ancestors built here. If there will be more Muslims than Belgians in Brussels, that's their problem. I do not want that here. They wo not be telling us who should live here," Babis told journalists in June.

This type of increasingly hostile rhetoric against migrants has profoundly stoked Islamophobia. For the members of Prague's small Muslim community, it is a sign of worrying times ahead.

Most of the Muslims here are doctors, engineers and IT specialists and so on, yet some political parties are trying to change our rights and eliminate Islam

Vladimir Sanka, board member of Muslim Community in Prague association

"Many of our friends have already left, and if [Islamophobia] was not the first reason, it would certainly be the second," the Palestinian-bornShaikh said.

Currently, Islam is recognised as a religion in the Czech Republic, but its followers are restricted from several basic privileges enjoyed by other faiths, including the right to establish schools, to hold legally recognised weddings and conduct religious ceremonies in public spaces.

"Most of the Muslims here are doctors, engineers and IT specialists and so on, yet some [political] partiesare trying to change our rights and eliminate Islam," said Vladimir Sanka, a 58-year-old Czech Muslim, who is on the board of the Muslim Community in Prague association.

'Nobody can forbid freedom of religion'

With negotiations between the two parties ongoing, Okamura has already told local media that ANO has pledged to consider a restriction on asylum for Muslims and a ban on "Sharia", or Islamic law, and that SPD will not support Babis unless an agreement is reached.

Lubomir Kopecek, a political analyst at Masaryk University in Brno, said that an alliance at this stage is unlikely, though, by no means unfeasible.

"If an ANO and Okamura government would happen in the next weeks or months, it could change many things," he said, referring to religious freedoms.

Even if the two parties did align, they would have a hard time carrying out such a ban, the chief of the Constitutional Court, Pavel Rychetsky, told local media saying: "Nobody can forbid freedom of religion and belief."

Still, the move would not be unprecedented for the region.

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