Courtesy Niki Kitsantonis
ATHENS: For years the burgeoning Muslim community in Athens lobbied the Greek authorities to build them a house of worship, without success. Now Muslim worshipers have found a temporary solution: a converted factory in the cityâ€™s southern outskirts.
Athens is one of the few European Union capitals to lack a functioning mosque, despite Greeceâ€™s friendly ties with most Muslim and Arab nations. The few Ottoman-era mosques still standing in Athens have not hosted Islamic sermons since 1833, when occupying Turks were driven out.
Initiatives by successive governments to build a new mosque in the capital ran into objections from the Orthodox Church and protests from citizens who associate mosques with four centuries of subjugation under the Ottoman Empire and political rivalry with Turkey, Greeceâ€™s Muslim neighbor.
According to a survey of 1,500 Athenians conducted in February by VPRC, a research firm, more than half of Athensâ€™s five million residents oppose to the creation of a mosque to serve the Muslim immigrant community, which numbers about 500,000.
The authorities last year managed to secure the churchâ€™s backing and passed a law providing for the construction of a mosque by 2010 in the central Athens district of Elaionas, on a large plot of land where a soccer stadium is being built.
A similar law passed before the Athens 2004 Olympics, for the construction of a mosque near the international airport, was shelved after furious protests by residents and the Church, which did not want visitors flying into Athens to be greeted by a minaret.
Skeptical about the prospects of this latest initiative, the capitalâ€™s Muslim population – swelling due to a steady influx of economic migrants – decided to take matters into their own hands. Using a donation of â‚¬2.5 million, or $3.4 million, from a Saudi businessman, a small nonprofit organization called the Greek-Arab Educational and Cultural Center transformed an old factory on an industrial estate in Moschato, southern Athens, into a prayer site capable of accommodating more than 2,000 worshipers.
This is much more comfortable than where we used to pray, but it cannot serve hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Athens,â€ said Mohammed Ibrahim, the Egyptian-born president of the center, which also functions as a school. â€œWe help Arab-speaking citizens to teach their children Arabic but also to understand the Greek mentality.â€
Twice a year about 20,000 Muslims gather for large-scale prayers in the main Olympic Stadium in northern Athens, he said. In the meantime, aspirations for a large, state-sponsored mosque are on hold. â€œWe still hope it will be built but we donâ€™t know when – it was supposed to be 2004, then 2007, now itâ€™s 2010,â€ Ibrahim said.
According to the European commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, such procrastination denies Muslims their basic rights.
â€œIslam is a major religion in Europe today, so European authorities should facilitate Muslims in practicing their religion,â€ Hammarberg said by telephone.
â€œEurope is seeing an increase in the construction of mosques, but these are funded by the state, not with money imported from the Middle East, to ensure that they remain independent.â€
Public opposition to mosques is still evident across the EU. A proposal by a Muslim group in London to build a â€œsupermosqueâ€ accommodating about 70,000 worshipers by the 2012 Olympics has provoked an outcry, as did the approval in January of plans to convert a disused church in Clitheroe, northern England, into a mosque. Last year, the provincial authorities in Spain and Italy had to overcome fierce opposition from overwhelmingly Catholic publics to the construction of mosques for Muslim citizens in Granada and Tuscany. This year, plans to build a mosque in Cologne have sparked a furor.
Human rights groups maintain that immigrants have the same rights to worship as other residents.
â€œThe right of every individual to practice his religious duties is inalienable, enshrined in Greek and international law,â€ said the director of Amnesty Internationalâ€™s Greek office, Gerasimos Kouvaras.
The three-floor building, covering 1,800 square meters, or 20,000 square feet, resembles any other mosque on the inside, with wall-to-wall patterned carpets and Arabic lettering on the walls as well as modern touches like wide-screen televisions and state-of-the-art speakers.
It is a far cry from the dingy makeshift mosques – in basement flats, warehouses and coffee shops – where Athens Muslims used to pray and that were the target of police surveillance in the countdown to the 2004 Olympics when fears of attacks by Islamist extremists were sharpened by bombings in Istanbul.
Technically these unofficial sites lack legal permission to function as places of worship, but the local authorities have turned a blind eye, waiting for a solution.
In the case of the Moschato site, the authorities were caught unawares. The local mayorâ€™s office said it found out about the center when a sign went up in mid-June, a week before it opened.
Public opposition to the center has been mild, perhaps because it does not look like a mosque. The unimposing faÃ§ade of the red-brick building, sandwiched between old textiles and juice factories, is a relief for many.
â€œIt is still very new so we canâ€™t be sure of its impact, but itâ€™s not in peopleâ€™s faces,â€ said Spyros Pangalos of a local resident group.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t have minarets like regular mosques; it is just a cultural center,â€ said Moschatoâ€™s deputy mayor, Grigoris Papadopoulos.
A spokesman for Archbishop Christodoulos, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, said that the church did not object to the center if it was legal but that the government should press ahead with the mosque it has promised. â€œMuslims in Athens must have their own house of worship,â€ said the spokesman, Archimandrite Timotheos Anthi.
Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the worldâ€™s Orthodox Christians and a staunch campaigner for religious tolerance, was more categorical in his support. â€œIt discredits us Greeks that Athens is the only European capital without a mosque,â€ he said in a recent speech.