Squatters vow to fight for their 'golden egg'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2005, 12:00am

Families who have lived at mosque for generations say they are entitled to stay

Families squatting in the Mid-Levels Jamia Mosque have vowed to fight moves to evict them, claiming they have a right to occupy the leafy grounds owing to their long-term residency.

Zamir Khan, a spokeswoman for one of 50 families staying on the site rent-free, says her family has lived at the mosque for more than four decades.

She lives on the site with her mother, the third generation of her family to do so, after her Pakistani grandmother moved there in the 1960s.

The families pay their own water and electricity bills and also perform voluntary chores maintaining the mosque grounds.

Ms Khan says the dispute over the right to occupy the land has been simmering for years. But tensions recently increased after plans were revealed to convert the illegal structures occupied by the squatters into 'cultural amenities'.

'We have been here for so long, if we didn't have the right to be here we would have been removed long ago,' she says.

Ms Khan says many families would face financial hardship if they were to pay market rates for accommodation, while older residents would be separated from their families and deprived of the community atmosphere.

'We are not rich people,' she says.

Ms Khan says that as a child growing up on the grounds she recalls unobscured views of Victoria Harbour. Now it is surrounded by a forest of high-rise buildings.

'This place is like a golden egg,' she says 'People are interested in the land and they are trying to develop everything.'

The battle to remove the squatters first flared in 1994, when they were served an eviction notice by the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund, which took over the Mosque Street landmark in 1991.

At the time, the trustees received permission from the Buildings and Lands department to construct a $200 million cultural centre at the site that would require the demolition of a four-storey building but preserve the mosque. Construction was originally scheduled to begin in 1997, but the plans were scuttled when the squatters mounted a legal defence on the basis that their long residency was a tacit acknowledgment of their right to be there.

Ms Khan says the legal manoeuvrings by the trustees left squatters feeling indignant and had hardened their resolve to fight on.

'Overnight we received a letter asking us to leave,' she says.

Many of the families stayed at the Jamia Mosque after coming from India in the late 1940s and Pakistan in the 1960s. Islamic scholars say there is nothing in scripture that guarantees a long-term stay in a mosque for the needy. Short-term offers of shelter are in keeping with the Islamic custom of hospitality.

'It is not a place for residency, it is a place for worship. It is not a place for anyone to occupy,' says one muslim woman who regularly volunteers for Islamic causes.

The mosque is more than a century old and the huts were originally built for travellers, but also housed refugees during the first and second world wars. Hong Kong's changed fortunes have meant that mosques now rarely need to provide such a service.

Hong Kong's newest and biggest mosque, in Tsim Sha Tsui, was completed in 1984.

Until recently, the city's mosques have been able to handle the increasing number of worshippers, said Saeed Uddin, the honorary secretary of the fund. But the Kowloon mosque has had to be expanded.