Without a mosque, Greece's Muslims go underground
The Greek government has stalled for more than a decade the construction of official mosques to satisfy the religious needs of the Muslim population.
By Andy Dabilis for SES Türkiye in Athens -- 10/07/12
Muslims in Greece are left to pray in basement apartments, coffee shops, garages and old warehouses, many of which are targets of arsonists, as the Greek government has stalled for over a decade in building an official mosque.
"All the other religions here -- Jews, Buddhists -- they have a place but we do not," Osama al-Najjar, 48, a petroleum industry supervisor, told SES Türkiye.
"If we want to observe our religion, we have to do it underground. We are not doing anything wrong," he said.
Naim Elghandour, 57, chairman of the Muslim Association of Greece, which claims nearly 18,000 members, said he has not prayed in a mosque for 40 years since coming to Greece from his native Egypt.
There are over 100 makeshift mosques in Athens, such as in the basement next to a convenience store owned by Elghandour's friend, Mazen Rassas.
"It is not the same," Elghandour told SES Türkiye. "Without an official sanction, Muslims are also without an imam," he said.
Elghandour said there are practical difficulties in accessing the makeshift mosque from neighbourhoods half an hour or more away, as well as in maintaining it.
"Who could come here and pray five times a day? All these makeshift mosques are not legal," Elghandour said.
An estimated 500,000 Muslims live in Greece, with about 40% of them in Athens.
"Many of them [are] illegal immigrants, recent targets of racist attacks and a government purge to rid the city of them, moves which have intensified enmity towards Muslims. More than half of Greeks polled last year opposed an official mosque," Rassas told SES Türkiye.
Athens is the only capital in the EU without a mosque; one has not been allowed since 1883, when the Ottomans evacuated the city.
Only in the Turkish-dominated Muslim enclave of Thrace has the Greek government officially supported Islamic shrines.
The government has considered a number of sites to fund the building of a mosque. The economic crisis, however, coupled with Greece's public enmity for associating mosques with the Ottoman presence, as well as pressure from the powerful Greek Orthodox Church, has stalled all plans.
It includes a proposal last to renovate a structure on a defunct naval base in western Athens at a cost of 750,000 euros.
"But we were never called and asked about that site," Elghandour said.
He said the plan is for the mosque's design to be minimalist, without minarets or any Islamic motifs, radically reduced from earlier plans to build a new 1,000-square-metre, 16m-euro structure for 500 worshippers.
Muslims meanwhile are growing exasperated. Two years ago, nearly 1,000 worshippers used the square at Athens University for open-air prayers but had to be guarded by 7,000 police officers.
Last September, supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn -- which won 18 seats in parliament last month -- assaulted worshippers during prayers, pelting them with eggs and yogurt.
Prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics, Saudi Arabia offered to build a mega-mosque far outside the city near the airport, but the idea was abandoned after the powerful Greek Orthodox Church voiced strong opposition.
However, there are indications the government position may soften. Yiannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki, said he wants an official mosque there for the 5,000 Muslims living in the city.
Boutaris is known for pushing for a memorial to Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was born in the city and has said Greeks and Turks are brothers.
One mosque in the heart of Athens -- the Mosque of the Congest -- is a historic Islamic shrine from the 15th century which is in disrepair and has been used as storage for archaeological finds. The Monistiraki flea market is located there.
Muslims in Greece will persist until they get one. "They cannot stop us," Elghandour said.