Athens is set to build its first mosque — but where?

Muslims living in and around the Greek capital are due at long last to get their first mosque – but in this overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country the question of exactly where to put it has become a political football. Athenian Muslims, who include immigrants from nearby Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans but also considerable numbers of Nigerians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Indians and Sudanese, were first promised a formal place of worship over 20 years ago. But it has only been with the approach of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, to be hosted by the Greek capital, that the idea has moved to the top of the agenda. Although the sites for the Games will have their own worship facilities for different religions, the government would certainly like to boost its credentials with Muslim countries by opening the mosque while the world spotlight is on Athens. The promoters of the project, which is being funded by Saudi Arabia, are therefore hoping that the Games will provide the needed impetus to get the building up, but the mayor of the suburb selected has in effect declared that he doesn’t want it in his backyard. In 2000, with Athens already selected for the Games, the Socialist government announced that it had granted a large plot of land in the town of Paeania, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city center and near Athens’s international airport, for the project. At that time the mayor of Paeania, close to the Socialists, accepted the plan, but his conservative successor Paraskevas Papakostopoulos, elected last year, has said the choice of his town was «arbitrary,» and got the local council to reject it. «We aren’t against the building of an Islamic center in Athens, but the choice made by the authorities does not help Muslims who live far away from Paeania,» he said. «The center should be built in the western suburbs, where most of the Muslim immigrants live,» he added. More controversially, the mayor cited the location of the proposed mosque, close to Athens International Airport, as an argument against the plan. This would «give visitors the impression they were arriving in an Islamic country,» he complained. Greece’s Christian Orthodox Church – which claims the allegiance of some 97 percent of the population, and is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution as the «dominant religion» – has so far kept a low profile, saying the dispute concerns only the government and local authorities. However, it has come out against the building of an Islamic cultural center, as opposed to a mosque, in the capital. A cultural center would «serve other aims» than a mosque, an ecclesiastical source said, apparently reflecting fears of political agitation by Muslims. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry, which has made the mosque project its own, has said it will override any objections by the local council in Paeania. «Our political will is to push ahead with this project, and we are soon going to adopt a law on the center’s statutes,» a diplomatic source said. The Saudi Embassy told AFP that it considered Paeania an appropriate location, on account of its good road links with the rest of the Athens region. However, Dimitris Levantis, the head of a local anti-racist group, said the quarrel had little relevance for most Muslims, and was mainly being used as a football in Greece’s political relations with Arab states. «The problem would be solved if each (Muslim) community was allowed to build its own mosque in its neighborhood,» he said. In the meantime, the city’s Muslims continue to make do with informal places of worship in homes and local meeting halls.

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