Christmas has been greeted with enthusiasm by the Muslim worshipers in Athens after it was said that the first official mosque in the modern Greek capital, forced to close just days after its opening in November, could reopen during the holiday.
The relaxation of a national lockdown to allow Greek Orthodox worshipers to attend Mass on Christmas Day means the mosque will also be able to function.
Giorgos Kalantzis, secretary general of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, told The Guardian: “We have decided, without discrimination, that all places of worship can perform services and prayers as long as congregations are limited to 25 people.”
Few religious institutions have endured such tumultuous labor pains or unfavorable beginnings as the new mosque in Athens.
The demands for a Muslim house of prayer date back almost 200 years after the withdrawal of Ottoman forces from the city and the early days of the newly independent Greek state.
Before the coronavirus came protest rallies and denunciations from the powerful Greek Orthodox Church; the angry cries of nationalists who still associate Islam with foreign occupation; failed legislation to allow a mosque and, when it was finally passed, years of court delays and failed attempts to find a construction company brave enough to build it.
“When we finally opened in early November, it was for five days and just one Friday of prayers,” lamented the government-appointed imam of the mosque, Mohammed Sissi Zaki. “After closing, this is a great, great blessing.”
Since its abrupt closure, the Moroccan-born Zaki has been one of the few who have visited the state-funded mosque, built on a former naval base in an industrial area off Iera Odos, or Sacred Road.
Every day, five times a day, he has said prayers in his cavernous blue-carpeted chamber. The meaning of that act never escapes him.
“It is with great happiness, satisfaction and relief that we can say that we are here,” said the 55-year-old imam, as the sun filtered through the windows of the mosque.
Human rights activists agree. Though hidden from public view, without minarets and under permanent police surveillance, the building, they say, does more than rectify a religious vacuum that has existed since the Greeks expelled the Ottomans from Athens in 1833.
“This is not just about the human rights and religious freedoms of thousands of Muslims,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, who previously headed the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. “It is about rethinking and rediscovering Greek identity in all its color and complexity, which includes 400 years of Ottoman rule.”
The Greeks had long had “a problem with Islam” because they equated it with the perceived cruelty of the Ottoman Turkish occupation. “There were always mosques in Athens, but after independence we decided to erase them from our memory,” added Christopoulos, professor of political science and history at Panteion University.
“We have a perception of traditionally anti-Islamic identity that has nothing to do with classical European Islamophobia, but with anti-Turkish sentiment, and that has contributed to the history of the mosque.”
There are believed to be around 250,000 Muslims living in Athens. The community, made up mainly of Pakistanis, Syrians, Afghans and Bangladeshis, was much larger before Greece’s financial crisis forced many to move on.
Imam Zaki says the mosque is large enough for 350 male and 70 female worshipers in an adjacent chamber. “In the summer, more people can congregate outside,” he enthused, pointing to the courtyard surrounded by newly planted gardens and a covered plaza with a fountain.
Previously, Zaki had volunteered at one of the many makeshift mosques that had mushroomed, mainly in basements, in the absence of an official Muslim place of worship.
The center-right government has now warned that they will close if they don’t get the permits. “Only 10 of the 70 currently operating in Athens have licenses,” Kalatzis said. “It represents a security risk.”
In the past, police, incited by far-right Golden Dawn supporters, raided underground mosques. Today, Zaki welcomes the police presence. The words “stop Islam” remain etched into the concrete sidewalk outside the steel doors leading to the site, a reminder of the hostility towards the mosque.
“We are the only country in Europe that builds and operates a mosque with public funds and I think that sends a message,” Kalantzis said. “The Greeks never had a problem with Islam itself, but with the way the Turks used it to attack and extinguish us.”
Authorities hope that by overseeing the operation of the mosque and getting Muslims to sit on its council, the radicals will stay in line. But the controversy is already rising within the community itself.
“We spent decades campaigning for this and what do we get? A place of worship that doesn’t even have a minaret, ”snapped Naim el Ghandour, an Egyptian businessman who runs the Muslim Association of Greece. “We don’t want to pray in a square box that looks like a warehouse. We will only be happy when we pray in a place that looks like a mosque. “
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