Christians in Manila decry mall's Muslim prayer room

As the midday call to prayer echoes along the dingy alley, Manny Macarambon hangs back, waiting his turn.

Scores of men squeeze past him into a makeshift prayer room at the back of the bustling mall where they sell jewelry, shoes, and phones. Before prayers, they wash in a public toilet with a blue tarpaulin roof. A separate female prayer room is sectioned off with plywood.

"During rainy season we can't pray outside, so what we do is we pray first batch, second batch, third batch. At one time, we can't pray all together," Mr. Macarambon explains, nodding at the damp concrete floor.

So when the owner of Greenhills Shopping Center agreed to put a dedicated Muslim prayer area inside a new parking garage, the merchants, after 10 years of praying in an alley, were delighted.

But to some residents of this wealthy Christian area of Manila, any hint of a mosque in their neighborhood was tantamount to a Muslim takeover. They lobbied the mall owner to drop his plans, invoking visions of rising crime, fleeing homeowners, and sliding property values. A residents group said it was the "first step in an economic hara-kiri." One newspaper column was entitled "A Jihad In Greenhills."

Muslim politicians, liberal clergy, and civil-society groups rushed to the mall owner's defense, accusing homeowners of twisting the facts to fit their anti-Muslim bias. The resulting debate has highlighted the often prickly interfaith relations in this majority-Catholic country, where Muslims make up around 5 percent of the 84 million population. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly referred to the Philippines as Asia's only majority-Catholic country.]

Tensions have local origins

While some observers here blame the US-led war on terror for distorting global views on Muslims, others say that domestic tensions play a bigger role. A long-running Muslim-led insurgency on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines has inflamed tensions between Christian and Muslim communities.

Nevertheless, the prayer room is definitely going ahead, says Rex Drilon, chief operating officer of mall owner Ortigas & Co. It's due to open officially at the end of this month. Ortigas has met local homeowner associations to assure them that it isn't a mosque and won't become a magnet for troublemakers.

Around 30 percent of the 2,000 merchants in Greenhills are Muslims who originally come from the Lanao del Sur province in Mindanao. Most run stalls in the bustling indoor market known as a tiangge, the mall's biggest draw, specializing in pearls and other jewelry.

"These people are Muslim traders. They're not violent people," Mr. Drilon says. "We sit down with them regularly to discuss security at the mall."

Merchants dismiss the homeowner campaign as fear-mongering by a minority that has little contact with Muslims. They point out that there was only praise for Ortigas two years ago when it opened a Catholic chapel in the mall, a common feature in many Filipino shopping areas.

"We have been here for 30 years," says Yusuf Sacar, president of the Greenhills Muslim Traders Association. "We grow up here, our children grow up here in metro Manila.... We have had a prayer area for [10 years] and still the property value of the area is very strong."

Muslim community leaders argue that the same traders have put Greenhills on the map. The pearl section has been featured in Vogue magazine, and regular customers include European royals and the Philippines' own glamour queen, former first lady Imelda Marcos.

"It used to be a sleepy little mall.... The Muslims have helped Greenhills to develop, which is why the corporation running Greenhills is supportive of the Muslims," says Amina Rasul, a former senatorial candidate who has lobbied politicians to support the prayer room.

Local politics may have clouded the issue somewhat, says Drilon. The new garage faces a Montessori school owned by the wife of a newspaper publisher whose columns have railed against the prayer room. Before the garage went up, the wife sought to persuade him to use the company's land to widen the access road, rather than add a building.

For their part, homeowners who fought the prayer room are still sparring with the company, insisting that Muslim traders should wear ID cards to prevent an influx from outside. They say their concerns over security are legitimate given Manila's high crime rate and links between Muslim extremists and kidnapping gangs that target wealthy Chinese Filipinos.

"We live here. Our properties are located here. It's historically proven that anywhere in the Philippines, especially in Manila, whenever you put a Muslim mosque in a Christian area, it becomes a Muslim area," says Don Alviar, a lawyer and president of the North Greenhills Association.

A silver lining

Despite the rancor, Drilon says he welcomes the debate because it gives some of Manila's elite an opportunity to reconsider their view of Muslims who come from the south. There could even be a silver lining, he suggests, for resolving the southern conflict where the Army battled separatists earlier this month in the worst fighting since a truce went into effect a year and a half ago.

"Part of the solution to Mindanao is not there but here in Manila. The decision-makers are here. You can't solve the problem while bigotry and hatred lie here," he says.

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