ATHENS — Athens‘ Muslims have long made do with living rooms, community centers and basements when seeking out places to pray. But now, the only European capital without an official mosque is about to get one.
The construction has set off both delight and dismay.
“I’m personally fine with praying at my home,” said Abouchan, 26, an Egyptian immigrant and expectant father married to a Greek Orthodox Christian woman, speaking after his Friday prayer at the Arab Hellenic Center for Culture in the working-class Athens suburb of Moshato. “But we also have to have the right to a mosque since we’re living and working in this country.”
The government-built mosque to be opened in April is being built in a renovated warehouse on land once owned by the Greek navy in Votanikos, a neighborhood two subway stops from the center of Athens. The mosque won’t sport minarets, and government officials will appoint an imam.
Athens is the home of some 300,000 Muslims out of a population of 4 million people, but the mosque will be able to accommodate about 350 worshippers, according to the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs.
“It doesn’t matter to us if it’s small,” said Abouchan, asking to be identified only by his first name, adding that he valued the mosque as a symbol of recognition and acceptance of Muslims rather than as a place for the entire local community to perform daily prayers
Muslims have about 100 praying areas scattered throughout the city — the state began issuing operational licenses to these last year. Most of them are in poor locations — moldy basements or old apartments, worshippers say.
Despite the presence of more than 300 mosques in northern Greece, where a large Muslim community dates back to Greece’s long history as part of the Ottoman Empire until the first half of the 19th century, building a mosque in Athens, the capital of an overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian nation, has long been taboo.
Since the mosque’s construction was announced last year, large protests have been organized by far-right party Golden Dawn. Some demonstrators have prayed regularly bearing Greek flags, chanting “Greece means Orthodox” before burning the black Islamic State flag. Protesters occupied the site last fall, delaying construction, and a police raid to clear the site in early November resulted in 15 arrests.
The construction site is reportedly under tight protection from Greek police and a private security firm.
Meanwhile, priests and bishops from the Greek Orthodox Church from across the country have been appearing on local talk shows against the building, warning in dire terms of the troubles that multiculturalism will bring.
“Our country is becoming day by day less Greek and less Christian,” Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II said in one of his rare interviews on Greek TV. “Muslims can’t be assimilated by Greeks and Orthodoxy — they just can’t. Islam isn’t a religion.”
Initially supportive of the project, the archbishop subsequently called for construction to be put on hold until it was clear how many of the country’s new flood of Muslim migrants would be living in the capital.
Many ordinary Greeks are also worried about the planned mosque.
Niki Tzianou, a 49-year-old mother of three and public-sector employee, said she is afraid the country will lose its attachment to a faith that has long united the country.
“There’ll be a corruption of our religious identity from the mixture of religions,” she said.
Fueling that sentiment has been the influx of thousands of Syrian and other Muslim refugees over the past two years, making the desperate trek to Greece as the first stop on a hoped-for journey to Greece’s richer partners in the European Union. Far-right populist parties such as Golden Dawn have scored election victories on promises to reduce the number of Muslims in the country.
“If [the government] wants to change the country’s religious map and fill Greece with mosques, we’re not going to follow,” Christos Papas, a Golden Dawn lawmaker, said on local TV this month. “Ninety-eight percent of Greeks are Christian Orthodox.”
Anna Stamou, a Greek convert to Islam and spokeswoman of the Muslim Association of Greece, stressed that it was important that the mosque be officially sanctioned and that it was not funded by Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have spent lavishly on mosques throughout the Balkans in recent years.
“We wanted it to be [built] with Greek funds so no other country can interfere in our community’s internal affairs,” Ms. Stamou said, referring to Saudi conditions that require clerics in Saudi-funded mosques to praise the desert kingdom’s monarch. “We want something to be ours, like the churches are Greek. The mosque has to be Greek in order to be independent and so we have a free voice.”
That could allay fears that radical preachers promoting terrorism are being imported into the country, many say. Still, sensational headlines from right-wing newspapers continuously attack the mosque project, arguing in part that an Islamic mosque in not a project — financially, politically or culturally — that debt-stricken Greece should be funding right now. The mosque’s estimated cost is around $1 million, with the European Union largely footing the bill.
The government is moving ahead, saying it is past time for the project to be completed.
“In our country, dozens of religions are practiced, and they all have their legal praying areas except Muslims in Athens, who until recently were not given any area,” said George Kalantzis, who oversees religious affairs in the education ministry. “There are Greek Muslim citizens, legal migrants and those that have no legal papers, but one’s relationship to God has nothing to do with whether someone has legal papers or not.”
Still, many Muslims here wonder if they will see a mosque open its doors.
Moukantes Chusha, 57, an Albanian Muslim housewife who has lived more than half of her life in Greece, said she was tired of observing her faith in open-air venues.
“I don’t know if they’ll build a mosque at the end,” she said. “It’s been so many years that they’ve promised to us that they’ll do it, but nothing has happened.”