Muslims Spar Over Road

Source: Khmer Times

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The Al-Serkal mosque yesterday with the remains of a fence at the front that was pulled down by protesters who want the new road moved further away. KT/Mai Vireak

Officials tried to soften dissent in the Muslim community yesterday in a meeting at the Al-Serkal mosque in the Boeung Kak area where a planned road running through the mosque’s land has enraged patrons and local residents.

The meeting was held two days after members of Phnom Penh’s Muslim community protested outside the mosque and destroyed a fence the Phnom Penh municipality put up to designate where the road would run.

The project, initiated in 2012, involves a road from Tuol Kork district to Monivong Boulevard through the mosque’s land, with City Hall saying earlier this year that the plan had been approved by landholders Othsman Hassan, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, and Van Matt, the president of the Cambodian Association of Muslims.

The plan includes a new 16-meter long road cutting through a section of the land provided to the Al-Serkal mosque with a width of 20 meters.

There will be a two-meter sidewalk on each side and more than 200 meters of pavement linking Road 86 to the property of development company Shukaku.

Muslim leaders and citizens from 25 cities and provinces came to the meeting at Al-Serkal mosque yesterday to discuss the proposed road and air their concerns.

Mr. Hassan, a supporter of the project, said it would benefit everyone in the community, including Muslims.

He dismissed claims that the road would disturb religious ceremonies and practices – violating Islamic Law according to some critics of the plan – and told attendees that the road would not bother anyone because it would be 60 meters from the mosque’s entrance.

“We have to contribute to the development of the government and City Hall,” he said.

“The development has no serious effects on the Muslim community, but there will be benefit from this development instead.”

Critics of the planned road, including Mr. Hassan’s uncle, say the Labor Ministry official is ill-equipped to champion the cause due to the personal profit he may make if the road goes ahead.

Ahmad Yahya, a member of the Cambodia Muslim Development Fund who works at the Ministry of Social Affairs and is an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said earlier this year that Mr. Hassan, his nephew, would benefit financially because he planned to build a condominium in the area and was involved in other development projects.

Mr. Hassan has denied the allegation, suing his uncle for defamation in August. He won the case, but Mr. Yahya continues to support protests against the project.

Sos Kamry, the leader of the Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs, said the opening of National Road 4 in the area will make the mosque famous, reduce traffic jams, improve local water systems and benefit members of the Boeung Kak community.

“This road is the big solution to prevent traffic congestion,” he said.

Despite the strong show of support at the meeting by powerful members of the kingdom’s Muslim community, Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng said the municipality will wait to hear more complaints from those opposed to the project before embarking on the next phase of the process.

“In case there is any group that is not satisfied and has a problem, they can file a complaint to City Hall about the dissatisfaction and we will resolve it further,” he said.

Muslim Cambodia, a group of Cambodian Muslim students and citizens, wrote an open letter panning the planned road earlier this year. They said it would affect the purity of their worship and therefore contradict Islamic law.

The area, they wrote, is supposed to be a quiet place for Muslims to worship. Many of the road’s most ardent critics say it is the premise of the problem that bothers them the most.

The land is supposed to be owned by all Muslims in Cambodia, yet certain members of the community were clearly planning to profit from it in the long term.

A Muslim detractor of the project who spoke on condition of anonymity said many people who are privately against the plan have expressed worry at coming out against the road publicly, fearing persecution by powerful members of the Muslim community as Mr. Yahya faced.

Yet in spite of their fear, she said the community remained defiant.

“I am suffering because this land belongs to the Muslim community as a whole,” she said.

“We do not support this completely because the mosque land is not for just Cambodians, but for Muslims across the world.

“This place was given to us by our late King Father Norodom Sihanouk to be a shrine. If they want to construct a road, we can just split the road at the edge.

“Why do they need to cut through the center of the mosque’s land?”

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