Ramadan prayer site irks mayor

Maroussi Mayor Giorgos Patoulis on Tuesday rebuffed a recent decision by the Education and Religion Ministry to allow the capital?s Muslim community to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on the grounds of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex (OAKA).

In a letter sent Tuesday to Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou and Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, Patoulis said it was unacceptable that permission to use the venue was granted without prior consultation with municipal officials regarding the suitability of the site as well as the potential implications for local residents.

?In the name of respect for religious freedoms and rights, one cannot disregard the rights of Greek citizens and the local community,? the mayor said.

Ramadan, which started on August 1 and ends on August 30, is the most widely observed of all Islamic rituals. The capital?s Muslims have repeatedly used the grounds of the Maroussi stadium for their annual prayer services since 2004.

However, a decision by the Muslim community last year to hold prayer services in central squares around Athens, including in front of the historic neoclassical university building in the heart of the capital, ignited some ethnic tension and a fair deal of criticism, even from liberal commentators.

Greece?s burgeoning Muslim community, currently estimated at about 1 million, has for years lobbied the Greek authorities to build them their own mosque — so far without success. Reports last week suggested that the Socialist government is finally moving forward with the much-delayed plans.

In his letter Tuesday, the Maroussi mayor said the latest decision is part of a broader government campaign to impose a string of deeply unpopular policies in the northwestern municipality, such as the relocation of OKANA drug rehabilitation units and the merging of schools in the Athens suburb.

The message coming from the central authorities, the mayor said, is: ?We decide about you, without you.?