Greek Muslims have been fighting to build an official mosque in the Greek capital for decades, only to meet resistance from growing right-wing groups. Left without a proper place to worship, the Muslim community remains mostly underground — literally and figuratively.
ATHENS, Greece — On Eid al-Adha about 250 Muslims attended morning service in an underground mosque in Athens. A windowless basement with exposed ventilation shafts along the low ceiling, the al Salam Mosque is “underground” both literally and figuratively. While aesthetic carpets cover the floors, chips can be seen in the plaster walls. Many attendees were Greek, though there were also immigrants from Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and some African nations.
“We have to pray in the garages,” Naim El Ghandour, president of the Muslim Association of Greece, told MintPress News. “This is not because of a lack of money but because they don’t give us the permission to have legal and open praying spaces.”
The last EU capital without a mosque
Al Salam is “unofficial,” unrecognized by the Greek authorities. The Greek government has approved an official mosque to be built multiple times in recent years but Athens remains the only European Union capital to lack a place for Muslims to properly worship — even despite estimates putting the Athens Muslim population somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000, a significant portion of the country’s 1 million Muslims.
“They make it very hard to be a Muslim,” said Elena Martine, a French resident of Athens who converted to Islam. “When you go in Europe, you can always find a mosque, you can find a place of worship for any kind of religion. But the government doesn’t want the Muslim people here. It’s as simple as that. They don’t accept us.”
Efforts to build a modern official mosque began in earnest decades ago but only gained enough support to see the Greek parliament approve it in 2000, then again in 2006 and 2011. However, appeals and delays have prevented it from being built, much of it the result of protest by various groups, including prominent members of the Greek Church.
Greek Orthodox Christians comprise the overwhelming majority in this Mediterranean country and the evidence is obvious with Orthodox churches everywhere in the urban area, sometimes literally on top of each other. There is no separation of church and state in Greece and churches and other places of worship here are publicly funded.
That is, except places of worship for Muslims. At as much as 10 percent of the population, Muslims are well represented and El Ghandour says the issue is not about money, as more than $1 million has been put aside for the mosque’s construction.
“The politicians here believe that building the mosque would be treasonous,” he said. “No one wants to bear this crime on their shoulders. They want someone else to take this hot potato off their hands so they delay it as long as they can.”
If it were a question of money, he says, the community could come up with the funds but even that would serve to demonstrate the inequality Greek Muslims are subject to.
“Our goal is to have a Greek public mosque funded by the Greek state as the churches are to be equal with all Greeks,” he said.
The financial crisis and right-wing extremism
The financial crisis and slow recovery have made it all the more difficult build a mosque, not only for the way politicians have focused on the economy but also how it led to a rise in xenophobic, right-wing thinking.
Late last year, the debate over the mosque turned ugly when several hundred people came out to protest its construction. The movement has been led by the Golden Dawn Party of Greece, which local media refer to as a neo-Nazi group.
“There’s money to build a mosque but there’s no money for Greeks to live with dignity,” Golden Dawn said in a statement in response to efforts last year.
Golden Dawn members have been arrested for a number of crimes over the last few years. Party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos has been charged with murder and extortion, among other crimes. The court has launched an investigation into Golden Dawn’s role in the disappearance of more than 100 immigrants, and members have been implicated in a number of attacks on Muslims — in particular, an attack involving a Molotov cocktail thrown on a Bangladeshi mosque and the 2010 disruption of Eid al-Adha celebrations. There have also been attacks on individuals, such as the murder of a Pakistani man last year.
Golden Dawn also targets Jewish citizens, gays, ethnic minorities, and other religious minorities. If this sounds too familiar, it’s important to note that Golden Dawn leaders have openly showed admiration for Adolf Hitler and use propaganda reminiscent of the Nazi era to promote their cause.
Yet Golden Dawn, which was formed in the 1980s and was granted official party status in 1993, now has 16 representatives in the national parliament — down from 21 in 2012 — as well as three in the European Parliament. They have continued to win seats through opposing unpopular austerity measures designed to bring the government out of debt. They have also blamed immigrants for the country’s economic problems, even calling for the immediate deportation of all immigrants.
“They say ‘They’re taking our jobs,’” said Martine. “These people do the jobs Greek people don’t want to do and they don’t have health insurance. They have nothing. It’s not their fault but the Greek people put that blame on them.”
“Not a multicultural society”
The resistance against a single mosque in Athens confuses Egyptian-born El Ghandour, who grew up with Greek friends in his home country where, he says, they were treated much more equally. He chose to emigrate to Greece after many of his childhood friends moved back, not realizing the sentiments were not reciprocal.
“The Greeks lived us like brothers,” he said. “They had their own churches, cemeteries, clubs and schools. They had all this. Life is not only to take but to give.”
A cursory search will return active Greek Orthodox churches in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.
El Ghandour’s wife, Athens native Anna Samrou, converted to Islam 15 years ago. She says the experience gave her a shocking perspective of her hometown.
“I lived in a city I thought was a multicultural city with civil rights,” she told MintPress. “I was disappointed to learn that — not only the Muslims — but everyone who is different is treated badly. We are not really a multicultural society.”
Samrou says such a situation makes the country even more poor than the economic collapse ever did.
“We are becoming not just financially poor but also socially poor,” she argued. “Investors will come back but what will be left of us when they do? We will no longer be human.”
No celebratory mood
While the small basement mosque was packed on Saturday, everyone shoulder-to-shoulder while bowing prostate toward Mecca, Samrou notes that it was actually a smaller crowd than before. Previous Eid al-Adha ceremonies were so popular that they were held in one of the Olympic stadiums here.
The number or revelers has dwindled of late, however, with the economic collapse and the threats and attacks from the right-wing. Events unfolding in Iraq and Syria are also contributing to lower numbers.
“People are scared,” Samrou said. “They are worried and don’t feel like celebrating. It’s depressing.”
In July Greece’s highest administrative court quashed an appeal opposing the construction of the mosque, saying that Greece has a constitutional requirement allowing for the free exercise of religion. Thirteen years after it was first approved, however, many here are skeptical it will happen anytime soon.
“We’ll see,” Samrou said. “I don’t know, but we’ll see.”