Muslims in Athens: In search of a place to pray

With Olympics coming, Greek government approves first official mosque. But local mayor blocks plans.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

From the street it looks like a lot of other rundown shop fronts in the concrete maze of downtown Athens. Inside and down the stairs, in a fetid, starkly lit basement, the Greek capital's Muslims are answering the call to prayer.

In this makeshift mosque, a Pakistani immigrant recites a passage from the Koran while his congregation - from anywhere from the mountains of Albania to the deserts of Sudan - kneels on a damp carpet. This is the daily experience of a growing community of more than 100,000 Muslims living in the only European capital of comparable size without a legal place to pray.

"We want our own place of worship," says Anwar Iqbal, who left Karachi, Pakistan, for Greece seven years ago, "but we know there's no way to demand it."

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A solution was supposed to come in the form of a grand new mosque to be built in time for next summer's Olympics in Athens. But the troubled history of its construction has underlined a deep-seated discrimination that Muslims say they feel in this Orthodox Christian country. The controversy also demonstrates the difficulty Greece, once a country ofemigrants, is having in adjusting to its many newcomers, particularly Muslims.

The numbers of Muslims in Greece have increased in recent years as a wave of economic migration has swept across the eastern frontier of the European Union. Ronald Meinardus, a political scientist specializing in minority issues, says the newcomers have found themselves caught up in age-old acrimony between Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks.

"The Greek state was created in opposition to the Muslim Ottomans, and this opposition is embedded in the collective memory," says Mr. Meinardus. "Islam is associated with the danger in the East, which is what creates this intolerance."

Plans were first made for an Athens mosque 20 years ago, but have been opposed by the Greek Orthodox Church which claims the allegiance of nearly 97 percent of the population, and wields considerable political power. The Church's position was best summed up by Archbishop of Greece Christodoulos who recently said: "The people are not ready to see a minaret in downtown Athens."

The government, aware of the church's sensitivities, shifted the proposed site to the distant suburban town of Peania, 14 miles west of Athens and a stone's throw from the city's new airport. But there, too, it has run into trouble.

But the ground at the proposed site remains unbroken - and it will stay that way if local mayor Paraskevas Papacostopoulos has his way. "No one asked us if we wanted this. Nearly everyone is against the mosque," he says.

Mr. Papacostopoulos has sought court injunctions to stop work after coming to office on an anti-mosque platform. He says the choice of location is arbitrary. "There are no Muslims in Peania," he argues.

The mayor has attracted the support of the church, which has agreed to the principle of a mosque but won't agree to a location. "Does the first image of Greece a foreigner sees [as he gets off a plane] have to be a Muslim mosque?" asks Greek Church spokesman Father Epifanios Economou.

Some Muslims are displeased with the Peania solution too. "It's two hours away by bus," says Anwar, the Pakistani immigrant. "None of us can go there. We work long hours and all the Muslims I know live in the center of town in neighborhoods like this."

No mosques have officially operated in Athens since the Greek war of independence ended Ottoman occupation in 1829. Former Muslim places of worship were either converted into museums or left derelict. A place of worship cannot be established in Greece without a government permit.

Greek officials say that none of the estimated 22 unofficial places of worship have applied for permits. The mainly first-generation Muslim immigrants fear a crackdown on their religious activities if they disturb the status quo by seeking recognition for unofficial mosques, says Anwar. "At the moment they leave us alone, and we are worried that may change if we make demands," he says. The illegal mosques are tolerated at the discretion of local officials.

Conscious of the intensifying international spotlight on Greece with the coming Olympics, the government has sworn to override objections to the mosque. "We have to ensure that representatives of Muslim countries and Muslim spectators have the right to exercise their religious needs," said Foreign Minister George Papandreou.

Panayote Dimitras, at the human rights organization Helsinki Monitor, warns against leaving one quarter of the capital's immigrants at the mercy of a network of illegal mosques. "Research has continually shown the link between unregulated places of worship and the rise of religious extremists. The government has to take the initiative in giving legal recognition."

The Peania mosque is being funded by Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of promoting the spread of an extreme form of Islam - a charge which it has denied.

Mr. Dimitras's warning is echoed by Sotiris Roussos, a lecturer in Near East studies at Athens' Panteion University: "These people haven't come for politics, they came to find work, but they have spiritual needs. If these are served by someone with no official background, then we could have a problem," he says.

Professor Roussos says an official mosque can play a role in steering the community away from extremists. He argues that a respected imam - who would be appointed by board of trustees including Greek and foreign donors - would provide a "religious reference point" for Muslim immigrants and defuse resentment.

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