Hide that minaret, Greeks say

Moavia Ahmed, a journalist from Sudan, has lived in Athens for more than 25 years. He is one of the capital’s some 100,000 Muslims who, for the lack of a proper mosque, worship in tiny prayer rooms – often in basements or warehouses. «Tens of thousands of people have to pray in inappropriate spaces and they have no place to commemorate their dead,» he said, expressing his hope that an Islamic center will eventually be built here as well. However, Ahmed’s modest wish sounds too radical an aspiration in a country where Christianity is widely seen as sine qua non of national identity and where 98 percent of the population are Orthodox Christians. Worse, objections to the mosque reflect fear, or even resentment, at the swelling population of Muslims in the country. Like elsewhere in Europe, the growing presence of immigrants is challenging traditional notions of national self-understanding and raising fears of a fundamentalist backlash – to a large extent because scaremongering by Orthodox nationalists plays skillfully upon public insecurities in the post-September 11 world. In a visit to Saudi Arabia in 1979, the late Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis was the first to promise a mosque in Athens. Three years ago, the Socialist government reactivated long-shelved plans to construct a mosque in the capital. (Greece’s only proper mosques are in Thrace, a northeastern region near the Bulgarian border that hosts the country’s Muslim minority.) This was mainly a result of pressure on the government from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cater for the religious needs of Muslim athletes and visitors expected to flock to Athens for the 2004 Olympics. The government promised that the mosque will be ready by August 13, the day of the opening ceremony. A law passed in 2000 earmarked a 3.35-hectare stretch for the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center in Paeania, on the eastern outskirts of Athens and close to the capital’s new airport. The center, which would also include and oversee the construction of a mosque, would be financed by the Saudi government. (Most European mosques have been built with funds from the wealthy oil states of the Gulf). But plans have stalled in the face of opposition from the powerful Greek Church and the local community. Misleading While not in principle rejecting the idea of a mosque, the Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, said that a minaret on the skyline near Athens International Airport might mislead foreign visitors. Churchmen said the mosque should be built in a more discreet location that would not «injure Greeks’ religious feelings.» Archbishop Christodoulos has often clashed with the government in the past, most notably when the reformist wing of the Socialist party decided to remove the mention of religious affiliation from state identity cards. The head of the Church of Greece – a populist and opinionated figure – caused turmoil last week when he called neighboring Turks «barbarians» who had no place in a predominately Christian European Union. Church lobbying for a reference to Europe’s Christian heritage in the EU’s nascent constitution also irked Muslims earlier this year. The residents of Paeania have reacted vehemently, arguing that the spires of minarets would intrude on the skyline of the area and give Muslims undue prominence. Their opposition has been embodied in a big white cross erected above the proposed site, a Paeania slope overlooking the airport. The city’s conservative mayor insists the land is property of the municipality and that the State has no right to cede it. The string of terrorist attacks, from New York and Washington to the recent bombing attacks in Istanbul, have given fodder to those who oppose the mosque, and plans appear to have been stymied further. Many are concerned over what they see as a strengthening sense of Muslim identity on Greek territory and say it is sign of increasing fundamentalism. Ahmed said that to presume that every devout Muslim is a potential extremist is unacceptable. Opponents of the mosque have used the attacks as a strong pretext to undermine the plan, he said, stressing that there is no connection between Islamic religion and terrorism. «These attacks were clearly terrorist acts. Whether committed by Muslims or other religious groups, they were criminal acts and as such they are rejected by every society or religion,» he said. «If there really were a connection (between Islam and terrorism), we would have to close down all mosques across the world,» he added. Islamic extremism Others insist that the connection is not that elusive. Opponents of the Saudi-financed center point to similar centers in other European nations that were used as recruitment or fund-raising bases for extremist groups. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers in the September 11 attacks turned out to be from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, was also born there. These are embarrassing facts for the Saudi government, whose involvement was bound to raise eyebrows in Greece. To counter the risk of outside influence, the Greek government demanded that half of the center’s administration be made up of state officials. It also requested that the imam come from Egypt. Backers of the mosque have often contested the government’s decision to allow Saudis to bankroll the project, saying that the construction of the mosque is an obligation of the Greek government that stems from international law and the Greek Constitution. Some of them see other reasons too. Michalis Papayiannakis, a European MP of the Synaspismos Left Coalition party, and otherwise a fervent supporter of a mosque in Athens, said that the Saudi interference was provocative as Riyadh has traditionally snubbed the principle of reciprocity over religious institutions. «Saudi Arabia strictly forbids construction of temples or churches of other religions on its territory. (If you are Christian) you cannot even set foot in Mecca or Medina,» he said. Papayiannakis, who wants the government to fund the project, criticized its foot-dragging which, he said, will most likely result in an embarrassing improvised solution like a religious site inside one of the venues or at the Olympic Village. Officials at the Foreign Ministry, now in charge of the project, were unavailable for comment. The controversy over the Athens mosque is emblematic of a tussle that goes on in various degrees and forms in other European nations over a public Islam. France and Germany have been embroiled in a controversy over the public display of Islamic symbols – most prominently, the right of girls and women to wear a scarf in schools – and over the establishment of religious sites. People tend to interpret both tendencies as a sign of reinforced Muslim identity within host countries. Also in Greece – which sees its self-styled open-mindedness coming increasingly under question – opposition seems to be the reflex of a fearful nation that is unwilling to come to terms with a changing society. However, the growing demands of the burgeoning Muslim community for equal rights and institutions underscore that Islam has not merely arrived, but is here to stay. «We don’t mind where or how soon the center will be built. What matters most is that it becomes reality,» Ahmed said.