By Marja Novak
LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - The foundation stone of Slovenia's first mosque was laid at a former industrial site in the capital Ljubljana on Saturday, more than four decades since the first official petition was submitted by Muslims seeking their own place of worship.
The initiative has been beset by administrative hurdles and a lack of political will in the mainly Catholic country of two million people, of which some 50,000 are Muslims.
Several thousand people attended the ceremony, including Slovenia's center-left prime minister, Alenka Bratusek, and Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic, who helped lay the first stone.
A handful of women in the crowd wore headscarves - an unusual sight in the Alpine ex-Yugoslav republic, a member of the European Union squeezed between Croatia, Italy and Austria.
"This means the world to me," said Sahra Kacar, 44, who was born the same year as the first official petition to build a mosque in Ljubljana was filed. "We will have a proper place to pray, rather than using various public halls."
The most prosperous of Yugoslavia's six republics, Slovenia saw an influx of people from across the region - including Muslims - seeking work over the past 50 years, particularly with the collapse of their joint state in the early 1990s.
Slovenia broke away in 1991 and its economy boomed, while the likes of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo descended into war.
The proposal for a mosque had been held up by reluctant local officials, some of whom tried to force a referendum on the matter in 2004.
Some 12,000 people signed a petition calling for a plebiscite, but Slovenia's Constitutional Court ruled it would be unconstitutional on the grounds of religious freedom.
"We are happy to be starting this civic project in Ljubljana, which will thus become a better-known and a more pluralistic city," Mufti Nedzad Grabus, the highest representative of Slovenia's Islamic community, told the ceremony.
Construction of the mosque is expected to begin in earnest in November and is projected to take three years at a cost of some 12 million euros ($15.9 million). The Islamic community will foot most of the cost, thanks to a large donation it expects from Qatar.
While the plan for a mosque had stirred debate, the concerns have been overshadowed by financial turmoil facing the country.
The project comes during Slovenia's worst financial crisis since independence in 1991, which threatens to make the country the latest member of the 17-nation euro zone to seek a bailout from the EU and International Monetary Fund.
"I personally am not against the mosque but I do know people who are still against it," said a 30-year old designer who lives near the site of the new mosque and gave her name as Ana.
"But the mosque is no longer that high on the political agenda because the attention is now focused on the economic crisis that is crippling Slovenia," she said.
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Mike Collett-White)