The search for a mosque in Athens

By Yorgos Karahalis

Some say that to come in contact with “God” is a spiritual matter that has nothing to do with the particular spot or place where such contact takes place. Well, if it were that simple then there would be no need to build churches or mosques.

In the Greek capital Athens, where almost half the country’s 11 million people live, there is a 500,000-strong Muslim community, mostly immigrants from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Many of those are faithful and want to express their faith by praying in an appropriate place. Well, there is no such place – there isn’t a single “official” mosque in the wider area of the Greek capital.

Instead, they have to rent flats, basements, old garages and all kinds of warehouses and transform them into makeshift mosques to cover their need for a place to hold religious ceremonies. There are lots of these types of “mosques” around town but they’re not easy to spot and whenever I arrived at one of those addresses I had to double-check it was correct as there was no way to identify these flats or warehouses from the outside. I could not say that they’re miserable places but I could better describe them as hidden places, places that do not want to get noticed. During most of my visits people have been very welcoming and very keen to express their concerns about the lack of a recognizable place of worship as well as their fears about the threats they get from some locals.

“Soon there won’t be a single Muslim in Athens,” joked Egyptian Rabab Hasan when I asked her to comment on the lack of a mosque in Athens, obviously pointing to the rise of extreme-right ideas, mostly expressed by the Golden Dawn party, which won 18 seats in the 300-seat Greek parliament in the second of two thrilling elections last year.

The Greek government recently cleared the funds needed to build a mosque in Athens, even though it will not have a minaret. They have also finally found the place to erect it – in an old naval base, next to a church. But the story of the construction of a mosque in Athens dates back decades and is full of postponements and many changes of location.

Greece is a country where the vast majority of people are Orthodox Christian and a country that has lived under Turkish Ottoman rule for approximately four centuries. Today it’s a European Union country bordering the “successor” of the Ottoman empire, Turkey. But Turkey is still considered by many Greeks as its major arch-rival in the region. For many locals, Muslims represent a Turkish presence in Greece so it’s not an easy reality for them to accept that a mosque will be built in the capital. The financial crisis, when human relations become more polarized, has only made things worse.

“Do you think that one mosque which can host about 400 people will be enough to serve the thousands of Muslims living in Athens? Of course not. But it would be a strong message to the rest of the world,” says President of the Pakistani community in Athens, Javed Aslam, during a chat I had with him.

Places of worship around the world are part of the local culture and an indication of the degree to which society allows its members to express their religious beliefs equally. So, let’s all wait to see what is going to happen this time and if the mosque saga is coming to an end.

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