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Kosovo's 'Noise Pollution' Bill Riles Religious Communities

Men walk along the street in front of an Orthodox Church and a mosque as smoke billows out of the towers of a coal-fired power plant in Obilic, near Pristina, on December 5.
Men walk along the street in front of an Orthodox Church and a mosque as smoke billows out of the towers of a coal-fired power plant in Obilic, near Pristina, on December 5.
PRISTINA -- How loud is too loud? And are some sounds more acceptable than others?

Those are some of the questions being discussed in Kosovo as a heated debate has unfolded over proposed legislation aimed at reducing "noise pollution." The new bill, sponsored by the Environment and Spatial Planning Ministry, would harmonize the country’s legislation with European Union regulations.

But even though it hasn't yet been formally submitted to parliament, the bill is has been stirring controversy for weeks in the media and on social networks.

Many members of the country’s majority Muslim community interpreted the legislation as a ban on "azan," the Islamic call to worship, and opposed categorizing it a “noise” or “pollution.”

In an effort to assuage such fears, Environment Minister Dardan Gashi met earlier this month with senior representatives of the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK).

"At the moment, neither the government nor the ministry had neither the inclination nor the idea to ban azan," Gashi told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "Personally, I would have been against any attempts to ban azan. From the very beginning, it was about achieving an agreement between the citizens, the government and [BIK] on the level of sound issued by azan by different loudspeakers. The BIK has been very understanding. But there are interfering voices who want to abuse the situation for political gain."

Gashi adds that the part of the law that refers to azan -- or other religious sounds, like the bells that ring on Christian churches -- will be moved to a separate part of the law and not classified as “noise pollution.”

He also said his ministry and the Islamic Community of Kosovo have agreed to start a pilot project in Pristina to centralize the transmission of the azan, known as "adhan" in some cultures. The objective is to broadcast the call at the same time and at the same volume at all mosques in the capital.

Islamic Community of Kosovo spokesman Ahmet Sadriu says the Muslim community is satisfied with the changes.

"[The bill] has nothing to do with stopping azan. We are dealing here with voice level definition, in a certain period of time," Sadriu says. "We have agreed to jointly choose the form of law application. But it is important to mentions here -- and maybe this is why we had such reactions -- that the issue of categorizing religious objects as sources of noise. Then again, we agreed for this to be separated in a special chapter [of the proposed law]."
Muslims attend Friday Prayers at Pristina's Grand Mosque in June.
Muslims attend Friday Prayers at Pristina's Grand Mosque in June.

But members of Kosovo’s Islamic Unification Movement (LISBA), an Islamist party, are not satisfied.

They have launched campaigns against the bill on social networks and -- despite the talks between the Islamic Community and the government -- continue to oppose any attempts to reduce “the voice of azan.”

LISBA even directly challenged Minister Gashi. "If he is brave, let him come and stop azan," the party says in a statement posted on social media.

Gashi accuses LISBA of exploiting the issue in order to “manipulate the public and appear as the self-proclaimed guardian of Islam.”

For his part, Sadriu accuses the media of creating an “electrified situation” on the issue. He also insists that the Islamic Community of Kosovo is the only Muslim institution that could legitimately deal with the government on the issue.

"We, the Islamic Community, are the credible institution responsible for organizing the welfare of [Islamic] life in Kosovo," Sadriu says. "We do not need someone to take us under their custody and try to assume the responsibilities of an institution such as the Islamic Community."

There has been no reaction thus far from Kosovo's Orthodox Christians.

Dom Lush Gjergji, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Church's Kosovo Diocese, says the Catholic Church is for “reconciliation and harmony” in accordance to international laws and EU standards when it comes to the protection of the environment from noise pollution. “We are in the service of God and the people, and we want people to feel better and more relaxed," he tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua contributed to this report from Prague. RFE/RL's Kosovo Unit Director Arbana Vidishiqi contributed from Pristina

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