Failure to settle matter has rankled sensibilities here and abroad

The plan to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Paeania, funded by Saudi Arabia on a site provided by the Greek state, was incorporated into legislation in 2000. But the law has never been implemented due to opposition from locals and from the Church. The main arguments were the proximity of the proposed site to the airport («Attiki Odos is the showcase of Athens») and the lack of a Muslim population in the area. Some even expressed fears that the cultural center might become «a den of terrorists.» When Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis repeated her earlier proposal as mayor of Athens - putting the old mosque in Monastiraki, which currently houses a museum of folk art, back into operation - it sparked opposition. «A mosque under the Acropolis?» some wondered, while Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, objected on the grounds of security. «We can't have a mosque in Monastiraki, because thousands of tourists frequent the area. Imagine what would happen on Fridays when they have services,» the chief cleric of the Greek Church is reported to have said at a Holy Synod meeting. He suggested Elaionas as an alternative site. The minister's proposal aroused opposition within the ruling party's ranks. Deputy Education Minister Giorgos Kalos objected while the Culture Ministry (YPPO) said it knew nothing about the subject (the monument belongs to YPPO). Somehow we are back at the starting point. But, as Bakoyannis told Kathimerini: «Our profoundly democratic education, our culture and history, and our modern European profile leave no room for wavering and hesitation on matters like the mosque. Muslims, our fellow humans and fellow citizens, live in Athens. They labor, participate, and contribute to the life and progress of this historic city, which is also a modern, dynamic, European capital. Such a city cannot seem to ignore those people's right to honor their faith and exercise their religious obligations with dignity. «Greece is a powerful, modern democracy, sure of itself, its present and its past. I am convinced that the same applies to modern Greek society, a multicultural society that tolerates difference. One factor that we should not ignore is that our country has traditionally had relations of friendship and understanding with the Arab world.» So, why don't we just go ahead and resolve the issue? «There is solid political will to get this matter finalized and to have a place of worship for Muslims who live in the city of Athens. «Of course there are technical, administrative and other issues which look complex. The technical issues are real but they mustn't be allowed to delay getting the matter settled. We're not ignoring the difficulties and we don't underestimate them. We have decided to deal with them speedily and effectively. We must go ahead on this matter of the mosque and we shall, with the cooperation of all the jointly responsible ministries and bodies. «The Church of Greece, for its part, has repeatedly given indications that it fully understands the social realities. It has always been a valued supporter of the state, and the same applies in this case. Besides, it demonstrated that in its recent decision to donate a plot for a Muslim cemetery at Schisto.» For now, however, the Muslims of Athens pray at an improvised mosque in an apartment in Neos Cosmos, at the Greek-Arabic Cultural Society, or in one of some 20 other places in the capital. «We pray in places that are not only unsuitable as mosques but not even suitable for people,» Arab journalist Sadi Ayubi, told Kathimerini. «People are upset,» he said. «In our countries - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt - there are many Orthodox churches. Why can't it be the same here?» He noted the lack of progress on the Paeania mosque and that while the Monastiraki mosque is conveniently located, it is small. «It won't hold 100 people.» In the end, he said «I don't think it will come about either. But nobody has asked us. Nobody has asked our opinion about any proposal.» The Greek State's delay in settling the issue has even had international repercussions. Recently Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned the Greek failure to act, comparing it to the question of reopening the Theological School on Halki. A typical response is what Imam Munir Abdelrasul told Kathimerini. «It is a fact that there is dissatisfaction in Arab countries, which harms the prestige of Greece. We managed to keep this matter to ourselves for a long time, but now it's out of our hands. We feel Greek, and what hurts our country hurts us. But when we boast abroad that we live in the cradle of civilization, they say, 'What are you talking about? You haven't even got a mosque to pray in'.» In 2004 there was talk among the international Muslim community of boycotting the Olympic Games in Athens. Munir looks favorably on the proposal to reopen the mosque in Monastiraki - «it's a welcome proposal on the part of the minister» - but not as a substitute for one in Paeania. «It's a small 18th-century building with cracks in it. It's not becoming for Athens and it doesn't solve the problem,» he said. Paeania Mayor Paraskevas Paraskevopoulos is categorically opposed: «The matter is closed,» he told Kathimerini. «I believe it won't be in Paeania. If they really want to solve the problem, they must find a place Muslims can get to quickly and cheaply.»