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Czech Republic: Prague Prison Opens Muslim Prayer Room For Inmates

A prison on the outskirts of the Czech capital, Prague, opened a prayer room earlier this month for the prison's Muslim inmates -- the first of its kind in the Czech Republic. Officials say it's making a positive contribution to prison life and say it's too low-key to raise concerns about it being used to spread Islamic extremism.

PRAGUE, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's Friday afternoon, and Tunisian Mohamed Ben Jedo is one of a group of Muslim men saying prayers in a room decorated with verses from the Koran. Often, there are up to 10 faithful in the small space, but today there are only six -- the others are in the prison sick ward, suffering from hepatitis.

Ben Jedo and his companions are inmates at Prague's Ruzyne prison, whose Muslim prayer room is the first of its kind in the Czech Republic. It opened earlier this month with help from the Islamic Foundation in Prague, which has also advised the jail on how to prepare appropriate food and how to help Islamic prisoners observe the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

At the same time, the Christians among Ruzyne's inmates also were given an adjoining prayer room, where the walls are hung with an Orthodox Madonna, as well as prisoners' paintings of Mary and Saint Francis of Assisi.

Before Friday prayers begin, Ben Jedo leaves the cell he shares with one other prisoner -- a Peruvian -- to tell our correspondent a bit about himself and what the prayer room means to him.

The bearded 24-year-old said he came to the Czech Republic in 1998 as part of his travels on what he called his "import-export business." Six months later, he was convicted of drug dealing, and he's been a guest of the Czech penal system ever since.

As always on Fridays, Ben Jedo is dressed in white from head to toe. On other days, he wears the standard-issue purple prison tracksuit, since he has no one on the outside to give him a change of clothes. This isolation, he explained, is what makes his faith especially important to him and what makes him appreciative of the opportunity to pray together with other prisoners.

"This year, for the first time, I saw a very good thing for Muslims in Ruzyne. [The prayer room] helps a lot of people in prison here, because mostly they are foreigners. They have no one, no family or anyone, to help them outside, so they keep their faith. Our faith gives us the strength to carry on," Ben Jedo said.

He said they have no imam, but added that sometimes the other prisoners ask him to say a few words, since they see him as being more knowledgeable about Islam. And he said it doesn't matter that there are so few of them.

"We go there every Friday now and pray for about an hour. That's enough for us. There aren't too many people, but it's a really good thing for us," Ben Jedo said.

As he waits for the others to file in, Ben Jedo stops to chat to Ivo Svajner, the burly prison officer who coordinated the prayer-room project. Ben Jedo shows him pictures of Saudi Arabia: the Great Mosque in Mecca, pilgrims at the Hajj, and members of a group he says travels the world helping handicapped children.

"He wants to show how Islam is more humanitarian than Christian civilization," said Svajner. "He's probably right. We're too commercially oriented in the West. You bring 10 prisoners to the Christian prayer room and all they talk about is business and deals."

Ruzyne prison -- situated not far from Prague's main airport -- started life as a sugar refinery in the 1930s. After World War II, men loyal to Andrei Vlasov -- the Soviet general who crossed over to the Nazis during the war -- were held here before they were handed over to the Soviets. Later, it was used by the Czechoslovak secret police. The country's president, Vaclav Havel, spent a few days here on two separate occasions while a dissident during the 1970s and 1980s.

Nowadays, most prisoners at Ruzyne are in custody awaiting trial. Some -- mostly assigned to kitchen and cleaning work -- are serving prison sentences. Others, like Ben Jedo, have already served their time and were sent to Ruzyne from throughout the Czech Republic before being deported to their home countries. That's why there are so many foreigners -- notably from Ukraine, Russia, and the former Yugoslavia -- though prison officers can't say exactly how many. And it's the reason why in Ruzyne, Islam, as Svajner said, is something that concerns "several tens of prisoners." But there's a little bit of self-interest behind the prayer-room project, too, he said.

"If we met their religious needs, Muslim or in general, then we thought it would bring some benefit to us, too, that these people will be calmer, will be in greater spiritual peace, which has actually happened. It's lived up to our hopes and ideals," Svajner said.

He said that discipline is now less of a problem. "They found that we're accommodative, that we don't look at them like they're some kind of backward people from the Third World, but that we treat them like equal partners."

Svajner said Ruzyne is also trying to emulate similar efforts in other European countries where prisons have set up Muslim prayer rooms. One of those countries is Britain, where nearly all of the 137 jails and young-offenders institutions in England and Wales have an imam appointed to visit Muslim inmates.

After the events of 11 September, the Prison Service of Britain's Home Office (Interior Ministry) came under pressure to increase its monitoring of Muslim clerics to lessen the danger of extremism spreading in the country's jails. This effort further intensified in December when it was revealed that Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber" who allegedly tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic passenger flight in mid-air, had converted to Islam while in prison.

Though evidence suggests Reid embraced extremist beliefs after he left jail, the revelation of his prison conversion raised concerns that British jails -- with their fast-growing Muslim population -- could be a fertile recruitment ground for fundamentalists.

A Home Office spokeswoman -- who declined to be named -- would not comment on Reid's case but said the Prison Service did warn imams after 11 September not to be drawn into discussions with prisoners that could "inflame feelings." Three imams have been suspended in Britain in recent months for allegedly doing just that.

Ruzyne's Svajner said that, though it has crossed his mind, he's not worried about Ruzyne's prayer room being used to spread Islamic extremism. For a start, he said, the prison faithful just use it to meet and pray; they have no imam delivering sermons. And even if the Islamic Foundation sends someone in the future, Svajner said he trusts them to pick someone suitable.

The Islamic Foundation's Vladimir Sanka said they will send someone if asked and that the opening of Ruzyne's prayer room is a welcome step.

"I think it's a kind of humanizing step for the prison to give [prisoners] the opportunity to meet their religious needs, because for believers, these are just as important as any other kind of need," Sanka said.

Sanka, a Czech who converted to Islam seven years ago, is unusual among his compatriots, most of whom are either nonbelievers or Christians. The Czech Republic's Muslim community is so tiny it didn't even register as a separate religious category in last year's census. Most Muslims here are foreigners, though Sanka said there is a growing number of Czechs drawn to Islam. And he said that despite widespread ignorance, he detects a growing tolerance in Czech society toward Islam and other religions.

"I think that the situation is slowly but surely changing for the better in our society as regards tolerance toward other religions and various different views, and this is maybe one of the signs of this improving situation," Sanka said.

Sanka said his foundation is ready to help other prisons set up similar prayer rooms. But for now, as Ruzyne prison officer Svajner put it, "We're a bit of a rarity."