The story of a new mosque in Athens

by Barbara Zaraveli & Nasruddin Nizami

Athens is the only capital in Europe which doesn’t have a mosque. The history of the construction of a Muslim place of worship in Athens brings to mind the legend of the Bridge of Arta – although the builders constructed it by day, each night it would mysteriously collapse.

Discussions on building a mosque in Athens came about in the early 1990s, but despite the planning and efforts which have taken place since then, currently in 2017, the mosque remains “under construction”.

THE UNDERGROUND MOSQUES

We found ourselves in the center of Athens, at one of the many basement mosques which exist in the capital. It is estimated that there are approximately 200 places of worship in the Attica prefecture, and over 100 in the city of Athens – most of them function without a permit and are “underground”.  For those who are unaware, it may be hard to guess that behind a commonplace aluminum door there lays a place of worship.

Of everyone we spoke with, they all expressed the necessity of creating an official place of worship where they can go to pray. Most are not particularly optimistic that the mosque will ever get built.

“I’ve been in Greece for 12 years, and I’ve heard about the mosque being built many times. Now they’re saying something about April. I hope it gets done, but I’m not sure. What we want is simply a place where we can go to pray. We’re in the position to guarantee both the safety of Muslims and the Greek people alike,” said Amjad, the imam of a Pakistani mosque.

THE OLD MOSQUES

The paradox is that while in other parts of Greece there are Muslim places of worship which are fully functional, there remain strong reactions against constructing a mosque in Athens. For example in northern Greece, and the islands of Kos (where there is a Muslim minority), Rhodes and Crete, there are mosques that either function as museums or places of worship.  Moreover, there are mosques in Athens, remains of the Ottoman Empire, with the most well-known mosque located in Monastiraki Square.

Thus, there is a long-standing history of Muslim culture in Greece, but it is one which most people either ignore or are not well informed about.

THE NEW MOSQUE

Greece does not have a well-planned policy on immigration and refugees, especially for Muslims. In recent years, the issue of a new mosque came to the forefront again – surely due to the influx of refugees.

In 2016, after many hurdles and negative reactions, the Greek government voted and approved for a Muslim mosque to be constructed in Athens. The approval is for a mosque without a minaret, of 350m2 (although the original plan was for 800m2), at an estimated cost of 1 million euro, with funding from the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

“The funding comes from national resources, as the state is responsible for the construction and this is the reason we cannot accept external funding from other Muslim countries (such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey). Surely this building is not large enough, but it is a first step. It is possible there will be some delays, but within reason. What’s important is for the mosque to open and function regularly. There were many obstacles, however they’ve been overcome,” stated Lefteris Papagiannakis, councilman and director of immigration policy for the City of Athens.

When the mosque finally opens and is visible, not only will a taboo be broken, but a request of our fellow citizens will be satisfied, and the international promise which Greece made will be fulfilled.

Without a doubt, it will take a great effort by the host community, but an even greater one by the Muslim community – which is responsible for safeguarding the sanctity of the mosque. It is a basic principle. If all goes well, only then can there be further discussions about creating additional places of worship, even beyond the Attica prefecture.

CHURCHES IN OTHER COUNTRIES

As for the Greek Orthodox Church, their official standpoint on the issue is positive, however the Church also tolerates priests who, in their sermons, have expressed hatred and racist views.

An average Greek might not realize that churches exist in countries like Pakistan, Syria and Egypt. It is estimated that 11% of the population of Egypt is Christian (10 million people), and that in Pakistan there are 2.5 million Christians.

In a country which prides itself for being the cradle of democracy, is it not valid to wonder if they, in fact, respect the rights of all of its citizens? Will there finally be a mosque in Athens? Will it be ready in April? We shall see…

Written by Barbara Zaraveli & Nasruddin Nizami  |  Translated by Gigi Papoulias

photo credits: Solomon

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