Squatters stall plans for mosque

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 1997, 12:00am

The construction of a $200 million cultural centre at the Jamia Mosque in Mid-Levels has been delayed indefinitely while squatters and trustees are locked in a legal battle.

The Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund, which took over management of the Mosque Street landmark in 1991, originally planned to begin construction of the centre this year.

But more than 30 families, who have lived rent-free on the 46,000-square-metre mosque land for up to three decades, have refused to move despite receiving their first eviction order in November.

They have been offered no compensation. Both sides have hired lawyers and are waiting for a High Court hearing date.

'Many people here are old, poor and not well-educated. We have lived here for years, so of course we think we have every right to continue living here,' a residents' committee spokesman said.

The November writ targeted about 20 individual residents, but the spokesman said any court decision in their favour or against them would apply equally to other residents.

More than half of those named in the writ would receive legal aid, while the rest would have to pay their own way, she added.

Chairman of trustees Anirali Nasir said the lack of compensation was not a humanitarian issue.

The squatters had been warned about the redevelopment at least since 1994, he said.

'We are not well-funded. We rely on donations from Muslims poor and rich alike and our purpose is to serve all of them, not just a few people who happen to be staying there.' Kafayat Khan, 31, who has lived in his uncle's decades-old squatter unit with his wife and four children for five years, said he enjoyed the neighbourly atmosphere among mosque-dwellers. 'It would be very sad to break up this community,' he said.

Property lawyer William Lo Wai-shing predicted the court would order that compensation and alternative homes be offered to squatters, depending on their length of residency. Their long, though rent-free, residency was a tacit acknowledgment of their right to live there, he said.

Preliminary plans for the cultural centre include a kindergarten, sports complex and home for the aged, which may house some of the elderly residents.