NEWS

Olympic security puts Athens ‘mosques’ under scrutiny

Greek police have increased scrutiny of Muslim immigrant groups and makeshift mosques in Athens – a city with no official Islamic house of worship – ahead of the Summer Olympics in August. The surveillance, confirmed to the AP by police sources, was intensified following the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed 202 people and seeks to gather information about Greece’s small and often insular communities of non-native Muslims. Muslim extremism has not cropped up as an issue in Greece – unlike in other parts of Europe, such as Spain, France or Britain. In the past, Greece was more concerned with domestic terror groups like the far-left November 17, which targeted US and other Western officials. The group was broken up and 15 of its members jailed last year, leaving police to deal with a few minor home-grown militant groups. Many Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere exist on the margins of Greek society, working in off-the-books jobs or as day laborers. But that means authorities have only a sketchy perception of the Muslim community. Information is so sparse that even population figures for immigrants in Greece are based on guesswork. Estimates of the number of Muslims in Athens vary considerably – from around 50,000 to 100,000. There are also an estimated 500,000 immigrants from Albania, which has a mixed Christian and Muslim population. The immigrants are distinct from Greece’s native 120,000-strong Muslim minority, most of whom are ethnic Turks and live in the northeast of the country where many mosques operate. And the flow of immigrants trying to slip into Greece never stops. Thousands of illegal migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe head to Greece each year, troubling authorities who are mounting massive Olympic security measures costing more than $800 million and involving 50,000 police and troops. This is one of the chief worries for Greek authorities. There are many ways to sneak into Greece: over mountains from Balkan neighbors or aboard ships run by smugglers from Turkey. And trying to keep up with the evolving immigrant population is a major task. Greek intelligence officials are expanding screening and profiling of people caught entering the country illegally. Police, meanwhile, have increased document checks and inspections at some two dozen makeshift mosques around Athens. Greek authorities would not give details of the operations. But police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the surveillance has been expanded following the terror attacks in Spain. Muslims in Greece have been recruited to provide information on various Muslim groups. The effort is complicated because Greece has no official mosque or central gathering points for Muslims. Private prayer sites have been created in basements, warehouses and empty building spaces. At a converted coffee shop with painted-over windows, construction workers from Egypt, clothing makers from Syria, and street vendors from Iraq gathered to hear readings from the Koran. «I don’t know what the 300 people who come here for prayers are doing,» said the prayer leader, Kassem Breash, a Palestinian who came to Greece from Lebanon in 1990. «The police and the crime squad have come many times. But they are polite and they don’t bother anyone.» Plans to build an Islamic center and mosque – the first in Athens since Ottoman times – have stalled following opposition from Greek citizens and the powerful Greek Orthodox Church. Human rights groups say additional scrutiny of immigrant groups before the Athens Games is understandable, but warn against profiling. They say building a legal mosque would help. «When (mosques) are illegal, then what you’re afraid of is more likely to happen,» said Panayiotis Dimitras of the rights group Greek Helsinki Monitor. Insecurity runs deep in the Muslim community. «I think (2004) will be difficult for immigrants,» said Moawia Ahmed, a soft-spoken Internet cafe owner from Sudan. He said many Muslims believe there will be deportations before the Summer Games. «In a single day, they may stop me in the street to check my papers three, four or five times,» said Ahmed, who runs an immigrant support network. «We stand out.»