Athens Muslims fear mosque delay after Hagia Sophia conversion
After Turkey turned Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum back to a mosque, Muslims in Athens fear their own official place of worship, delayed for over a decade, will be held back again.
The project to open a state-sanctioned mosque in Athens, the only European capital that does not have one, was launched in 2007. But it immediately ran into strong opposition from the influential Orthodox Church, as well as from nationalist groups.
"I think after this incident, it might be even more difficult to open the official mosque that we have awaited for ten years," says Imam Atta-ul Naseer, who runs a makeshift mosque in a central Athens apartment.
An architectural marvel of the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia Byzantine basilica was converted into a mosque in 1453 after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans.
In 1934, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the monument into a museum as a symbol of secular Turkey.
But in July, a top Turkey court ruled that Hagia Sophia could be reconverted into a mosque.
Museum, church or mosque? The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia, with its massive dome and four minarets, is nearly 1,500 years old. Turkey's top court has now paved the way for the museum to be converted back into a mosque. By Klaus Dahmann
Architectural milestone: in 532, Roman Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of an awe-inspiring church in his residence Constantinople – "one that has never existed since Adam's time, and one that will never exist again". Roughly 10,000 workers were involved in the construction work. For a millennium, the Bosphorus basilica remained Christendom’s biggest church
The coronation church of Byzantium: Justinian is said to have invested almost 150 tons of gold into the construction of the Hagia Sophia. The building was in need of some corrections though: at first, the cupola was too flat and caved in during earthquakes. The Hagia Sophia – "Holy Wisdom" – soon came to be used as the Roman Empire's official church. From the 7th century onwards, almost all Byzantine emperors were crowned there
Transformation of a church into a mosque: the year 1453 saw the end of Byzantine rule in Constantinople. After conquering the city, Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman Empire turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Crosses were exchanged for crescents, bells and altars destroyed or removed, mosaics and frescoes painted over. The addition of the first minaret completed the transformation into a mosque
A mosque turned into a museum: the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934. During the very sumptuous restoration works, old Byzantine mosaics were excavated. On 10 July 2020, a Turkish top court annulled the 1934 decree, according to reports by state news agency Anadolu, paving the way for it to be reconverted into a mosque
Islam on a par with Christianity: the eventful history of the Hagia Sophia is visible everywhere. The letterings "Muhammad" (left) and "Allah" (right) flank the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus on her lap (in the back). The Hagia Sophia has been a World Heritage Site since 1985
Byzantian icons: the most splendid mosaic in the Hagia Sophia is a work of art from the 14th century which had been excavated on the wall of the southern gallery. Even though it could not be fully restored, the faces are clearly discernible: Jesus as the ruler of the world is depicted in the middle accompanied by Mary to his left and John to his right
The Orthodox Christians' perspective: Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and honorary head of all Orthodox Christians, has also laid claim to the Hagia Sophia. He is opposed to converting the building into a mosque. Since 1934 the Hagia Sophia has had the status of a museum, it should serve as a "place and symbol of meeting, dialogue and peaceful co-existence of peoples and cultures"
Soon a mosque again? Turkey's top administrative court has annulled the decades-old government decree turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for the UNESCO World Heritage site building's restoration to mosque status, despite international warnings against such a move. It is one of the most visited monuments in Turkey
"I think a mosque should remain a mosque. It should not become a church or whatever. Just as Christians expect Hagia Sophia to remain a church, Muslims expect the same," says Imam Naseer.
The official mosque in Athens, without a minaret and under the supervision of the Greek state, is expected to open by the end of autumn in the industrial district of Elaionas, northeast of Athens.
But in the meantime, to meet the requirements of a Muslim community of nearly 300,000 people, numerous makeshift mosques, in apartments, basements and even sheds, have been created in past years.
Naseer believes that historic Ottoman mosques in Athens, like the one on the central Monastiraki square which has been transformed into a museum, could have served as a place of worship for Muslims.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has himself proposed this to Greek leaders in the past. But the subject is delicate in a country which was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, before regaining its independence in the 19th century.
In Greece, anti-Turkish sentiment remains strong and the current tension between the two countries over migration and energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean reinforces this animosity.
"In Greek hearts, the Muslim is still associated with the Turkish invader", notes Naseer.
Living in Greece for the past seven years, the Pakistan-born imam has faced racism and sometimes even violence by neo-Nazi militants.
"But in general, Christians and Muslims live together peacefully," he says.
In an attempt to regulate the makeshift mosques, the Greek state sets strict operational rules.
Operators must register the name of the religious representative and his background, the number of regular worshippers and the establishment's sources of income. The prayer hall must also meet safety standards, which include having a fire alarm, sanitary facilities and an emergency exit.
"The procedures are complicated and take time. Few mosques have obtained permits from the ministry," Naseer says.
In the Pakistani quarter of Athens, a green door stands out in a shopping lane: the entrance to the Al Jabbar Mosque. Bangladeshi Imam Abu Bakr proudly points to the coveted ministry document, pasted on a wall.
"Since 2017, we have been operating legally," he says. "The official mosque that the Greek state wants to open is far from the centre of Athens where many Muslim refugees live and can only accommodate 350 people anyway."
"Unofficial mosques that become legal, like ours, will therefore remain necessary to Muslims who wish to practice their faith in Athens," Abu Bakr notes.
The only mosques dating from the Ottoman era that are currently operating in Greece are located in the border region with Turkey, in Thrace, where a Turkish minority of 150,000 people live. (AFP)