WARSAW (Reuters) - In a sight familiar in some west European countries but new to Poland, dozens of protesters demonstrated in a Warsaw suburb last weekend against the construction of a mosque.
Plans by Poland's tiny Muslim community to build a place of worship and an Islamic cultural center face opposition in a sign that concerns about Islam may be spreading eastwards to the staunchly Catholic European Union member.
Between 15,000 and 30,000 Muslims, many of them immigrants from Chechnya, live in Poland -- the biggest ex-communist EU state where more than 90 percent of the 38-million population declare themselves Catholics.
Some 150 people protested at the half-finished building site, a 30-minute drive from the city center, where the Muslim League, a religious organization established in Poland in 2004 is building what will be only the country's fifth mosque with government permission.
"Such centres are very often sources of radicalization," said one protester, who like most of the demonstrators was happy to be filmed but unwilling to give his name.
He brandished a banner depicting minarets as missiles that resembled a stark image used in a Swiss referendum when electors voted last year to ban new minarets.
Others chanted "Let's not repeat Europe's mistakes" and "Blind tolerance kills common sense," and demanded that Muslim countries respect women's rights and religious freedom.
"Look at what's happening in Europe, I don't want my daughter to be forced to wear a burka in the future," a male protester said of the all-covering full-length veil which is the object of fierce debate in France.
A Belgian parliamentary committee voted this week to ban the wearing in public places of the burqa and the niqab, a similar garment in which only a woman's eyes are visible.
"I lived in a town in Poland where there were Catholic churches, a synagogue and a mosque and that was fine. But if I go to Saudi Arabia, I cannot wear my medallion and churches where I could pray are banned," said a woman demonstrator.
Such complaints are frequent in west European countries, which have seen an influx of Muslims in recent decades, making Islam the second faith in many. The Muslim population in Europe is estimated at 15-18 million, roughly one-third in France.
The late-2009 referendum in Switzerland was the starkest instance of a rejection of Islam, but Germany and France also have disputes over the construction of minarets and mosques, or the wearing of Muslim headscarves and veils.
"The problems seen in France, Germany or the Netherlands will come to Poland as it is modernizing, catching up with the EU's west and becomes more attractive to migrants from poorer parts of the world," said Professor Zbigniew Mikolejko of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
"We will be getting many poor Muslims from North Caucasus. So these protests highlight a fear about the future, a potential conflict. There is no threat now of course, but it shows people expect this trouble to come," he told Reuters.
Until World War Two, Poland was a multicultural society where Catholics, Jews and Greek Orthodox believers co-existed despite some anti-Semitism.
The majority of Polish Jews, Roma and other ethnic minorities were exterminated under Nazi German occupation.
The survivors sometimes endured oppression under the communist system installed in Poland after the war.
Twenty years after the fall of communism, Poland remains a largely homogeneous country of Catholic Slavs, although more and more foreigners live in the capital and other big cities and there are some areas where minorities are concentrated.
Muslim Tatars have lived in north-eastern areas for centuries and are fully assimilated by now. This, however, is not the case of migrants from the North Caucasus.
"This poor Muslim migration started coming in the 1990s when Russia fought the first war there. Chechens settled in closed communities in areas of Poland dominated by narrow-mindedness and so the first problems started there," Mikolejko said.
"Now middle class entrepreneurs from Muslim countries are also coming," he said, adding that the three groups of Muslims tended to live separately.
Pending the completion of the new complex, there is just one mosque for Warsaw's estimated 10,000 Muslims, and it holds barely 200 people in a converted villa in the city suburbs.
"We think the cultural center is needed for Poland, both for its Muslim community as well as for non-Muslims," Samir Ismail, head of the Muslim League, told Reuters.
Apart from the mosque, due to have a small minaret, the venue will also feature an art gallery, a library and a restaurant and will host classes for children and religious dialogue meetings, Ismail said.
The organization has gathered funds from sponsors in Qatar, Saudi Arabia as well as Poland.
"There is no reason to stop the construction," said Ismail, who came to Poland from Kuwait to study in 1986 and works as a pediatrician, has Polish citizenship and a Polish wife with whom he has four children.
Poland's powerful Catholic church has not spoken out on the issue, but the clergy is divided between xenophobic conservatism and ecumenical dialogue.
So too are Poles in their attitudes toward Islam.
A PBS DGA telephone survey conducted on March 25 among 500 Poles showed 48 percent opposed construction of a mosque with a minaret in their neighborhood, while 42 had nothing against it.
"This fear comes from a lack of knowledge. There are countries where the assimilation of Muslims is working fine, like in Austria or Norway," said Agata Skoworn-Nalborczyk, an Islam specialist at the Warsaw University.
"The average citizen knows a Muslim was behind the World Trade Center attacks but doesn't follow the differences within Islam. Poles have simplistic ideas about Islam as they lack their own experience with Muslims," sociologist Mikolejko said.
But Ismail was more optimistic. When asked if he believed the row over the mosque meant west European concerns with Islam had arrived to Poland, he said:
"Absolutely not. There is no need to feel bad. After this dispute we received calls from Poland, also from non-Muslims, wanting to send us money to support the construction."
editing by Paul Taylor