A mosque for Athens
Images of saints and a wooden cross have been affixed to locked gates made of corrugated iron and bars, beneath a layer of NATO barbed wire. There's also a flyer that reads: "Greece is a land of saints, martyrs and heroes". Behind the door, in a dusty industrial area of Athens, there's a construction site that for some is a source of irritation. This is because the first official mosque in the Greek capital is due to open there. The words "Oxi Temenos" – meaning "No to the mosque" – have been daubed on walls throughout the surrounding area.
Athens is one of the few European capitals – if not the only one – not to boast a large mosque for use by its Muslim population. Believers pray in dozens of private spaces in basements and rear courtyards. And this despite the fact that it is almost 40 years since the government promised to erect a mosque – something it has repeatedly put off due to vociferous resistance. Greek media reports say the mosque is now due to be completed in May. No official opening date has so far been announced. The decades-old conflict exposes the persistently difficult relationship between the Orthodox Christian nation, which was ruled by the Ottomans for several centuries, and Islam.
Naim Elghandour is 62, Muslim and a staunch campaigner when it comes to assuring the future of Islam in Greece. The new mosque is one of his interim targets. "Our biggest problem is," he says, "that church and government refuse to recognise that Greek Muslims are part of society." Naim is chairman of the "Muslim Association of Greece". Originally from Egypt, he arrived in Greece at the age of 19 and kept his head above water with casual labour. Today, he is a Greek citizen and married to Anna Stamou, a Greek woman who converted to Islam after the wedding. The couple have two children.
Prayers in the cellar
Naim and Anna go to pray in the "Salam Mosque", a room in the basement of a house accessed through a garage. Heating ducts run along the ceiling and lighting is provided by neon strips. The floor is covered by a large rug and the walls are hung with posters of drawings showing how to wash and pray. Someone has neatly removed the faces of the figures. Anna knows how depressing this prayer room feels. "My children ask me: how come others pray in beautiful churches and we have to pray in the cellar?" she says.
Athens is home to some magnificent historic mosques. Following the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans, however, in the first third of the 19th century, they were converted for other uses. The picturesque Tzistarakis Mosque for example is today part of the Museum for Greek Folk Art. In the late 1960s, it was authorised as a house of prayer for a short time: for the former Saudi King Saud, who lived in Greek exile after losing the power struggle against his brother.
Ten years later, Saudi Arabia also tabled the construction of a new, large mosque: in 1978, Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis made a pledge to the King of the strictly Islamic nation that he would be allowed to build such a mosque in Athens. But the promise came to nothing. Before the 2004 Olympic Games the debate was reignited – again without consequences. In 2006, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe stepped in, saying that the religious freedom of Muslims must also be respected by the Greeks.
The government finally passed a law and earmarked 15 million euros – but again, nothing happened for another 10 years. About one year ago, the Syriza government initiated the mosque construction project. Tens of thousands of Muslims had in the meantime arrived as refugees in the country of 11 million. It is thought that more than 200,000 followers of Islam currently live in Athens.
But not much remains of the original plan to build a large mosque in the centre of an expansive green area. Of the 15 million euros initially estimated for the project, 14 million have "vanished", says Naim Elghandour. Now, a former naval base is being renovated for just under 900,000 euros and there are no plans to build a minaret. The new mosque, which will be able to accommodate around 350 worshippers in an 850-square metre space, will be located on a busy street in the Votanikos neighbourhood.
Panic at the prospect of ″de-Hellenisation″
Even this has met with resistance. A few months ago Hieronymos II., Archbishop of Athens and head of the Orthodox church in Greek, who fears his country is facing a process of "de-Hellenisation" and "de-Christianisation" spoke out in favour of postponing construction of the mosque until there was clarity over whether the Muslim refugees would be remaining in the long-term. Every so often, the site is occupied by a vigilante group called the "Greek Association of Infantry Reservists". Its leader, the self-styled "General" Yannis Ioannidis, has described all Muslims in Athens as "illegal" and explained in an interview that the only genuine Greek Muslims live in the north of the country.
The "General" was referring to the region of Thrace, 800 kilometres to the north of Athens. It is home to those Muslims who were not forcibly resettled following the Greco-Turkish war. As set down in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, some 1.5 million Christians from Asia Minor were made to move to Greece. In turn, some 500,000 Greek Muslims moved to Turkey. A minority remained in both nations – as a kind of security, so that no one in Athens or Ankara would ever get any stupid ideas.
The Greek Orthodox patriarchy remained in Istanbul and in Greece, the more than 100,000 Muslims from Thrace. To this day, they have more than 300 mosques, 240 imams, muftis and Islamic cemeteries – an infrastructure that Muslims in Athens can only dream of. Meanwhile most Muslims in the capital are migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Egypt, or Palestinians.
When the new mosque in Athens is finished, Naim Elghandour will turn his attentions to the next goal: an Islamic cemetery in the capital. Thus far, deceased Muslims have either been transported to their home nations or buried in one of the Islamic cemeteries in the north. "I always say to my people: when I die, put my coffin on Syntagma Square in front of the parliament building and leave," says Naim. "Then we'll see where they bury me."
© Qantara.de 2017
Translated from the German by Nina Coon