The interior of the new mosque at Votanikos in downtown Athens is seen during a public tour of the facility at the official opening conducted by the then education minister, Kostas Gavroglou, in June 2019. [ANA-MPA]
Athens’ first modern mosque is expected to be delivered at the start of next month, paving the way for its official inauguration later in the year and ending a saga that began 14 years ago.
According to one government official who spoke to Kathimerini, the prime minister’s determination to get the project up and running was evidenced by the tenders that were launched last June.
On June 7, 2019, the SYRIZA government’s minister for religious affairs, Kostas Gavroglou, held an official inauguration for the mosque at 144 Iera Odos Street, near central Athens. The joy was short-lived, though, because once the ceremony was over, the site was locked and has been ever since, along with its playground and park. The signs of neglect are already evident.
However, Kathimerini has learned that the necessary tenders are proceeding apace and that by early October the mosque will have the cleaning and security services it currently lacks, while its administrative offices will also be furnished. One civil servant will be hired for the mosque as a permanent member of staff, while the ministries of Education and Health will provide an additional two staff members and four more will be hired on eight-month contracts via interviews.
Sidi Mohammed Zaki, a 49-year-old Moroccan Greek, will serve as the mosque’s imam. The 49-year-old is fluent in Greek, Arabic and French, and has degrees in physical mathematics and Muslim studies.
Legislation allowing for the construction of the mosque was passed in 2006 under Minister Marietta Giannakou and was regarded as a remarkable event in light of developments in Europe at the time. As soon as she left the helm of the Ministry for Education and Religious Affairs, however, the project stalled. Three years later, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos and Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou revived the project – the site where it was to be built had not even been transferred from the Hellenic Navy to the Greek state yet.
From that time and until June 2019, Parliament voted on seven legislative acts concerning the mosque, six of which related to zoning issues. The acts all passed with large majorities in the House as the project had the support of all parties, except those on the far-right. MPs who voted against the legislation were acting as part of an “effort to cultivate fear and hatred, knowing this would harm the national interest,” a government official comments.
There was no shortage of voices from within the Church of Greece and ultraconservative religious organizations actively opposing the plan, causing construction firms that had shown an interest in the project to bow out amid concerns of the potential damage to their public image and the fear of being dragged through the courts. Meanwhile, even though the Church of Greece had officially expressed its support for the mosque, through statements by both the late Archbishop Christodoulos and his successor Ieronymos, the metropolitan bishop of Piraeus opposed the project in 2011 at the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, demanding its annulment.
On the decision of the government at the time, the responsibility for representing the interests of the Greek state and defending cross-party support for the mosque’s construction was put in the hands of the secretary-general for religious affairs at the time, Giorgos Kalantzis. Three years later, the Council of State issued a historic decision vindicating the Greek state.
The decision prompted the project’s opponents to change tactics, and they began filing lawsuits not just against political officials, but also individual civil servants, cultivating a climate of fear in the public administration. The civil servant who was directly responsible for the project has since retired, but his judicial adventures are far from over.
People with knowledge of the events surrounding the controversial project say that the peak of opposition activism was the occupation in 2013 of the abandoned navy buildings at the site. The protesters claimed to be taking them over on behalf of the city’s homeless, though no homeless people were ever moved in, “emulating the far-right tactic of occupying public and private buildings,” according to one source.
The mosque project froze again with the change of government in 2015 and under pressure from the nationalist Independent Greeks, the party leftist SYRIZA formed a coalition with. But the prime minister stepped in shortly after, ordering the then minister of foreign affairs, Ioannis Amanatiadis, to take the initiative and find a solution.
Today, 14 years on, Marietta Giannakou’s decision that the mosque should be built with state money and remain under state control is being vindicated. Indeed, opposition to the mosque has come from many different and divergent – though always extreme – political and ideological quarters. Their opinions are also backed by Turkey, which is seeking the reopening of the historic Fethiye Mosque in the Roman Agora, according to official statements made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.