Athens residents of different religions worship at the synagogue, church and the makeshift mosque
The right to freedom of worship enshrined in the Greek Constitution is not enough, it seems, to ensure that people of different faiths feel truly free to practice those faiths. The atmosphere below the mosque in Geraniou Street, near Omonia Square, is not what one might think of as conducive to worship, situated in a district of half-collapsed roofs and dirty alleyways. Altaf from Bangladesh showed us through the back door of the old building that houses the makeshift mosque. Normally the imam would not have allowed the photographer to enter, but his suspicion and fear evaporated after a few friendly words. Then there was Germel, from India, the owner of a video club, who jotted down the principles of the Sikh faith for us. «Come out to Marathon and see for yourselves,» he said. However, if we hadn’t had those notes from Germel with us to show to the Indians heading along Marathonos Avenue, I doubt whether they would have trusted us enough to show us the way to the temple. Christian doctrines Compared to members of other faiths, Christians who are not members of the Orthodox Church are in a far better position. The Catholic Church of Saint Dionysius on Panepistimiou Street and the Anglican church on Filellinon Street show that whatever points of doctrine separate them – which once were even cause for war – are now negligible compared to Christianity’s ecumenical message. The collection trays in these churches are mostly filled these days by Filipina baby-sitters and South African laborers, all residents of Athens. The devout faith of those who for one reason or another find themselves in Athens is not due to archbishops or other clerical personalities but goes much deeper. It is more in the nature of hand luggage taken on long journeys, a refuge in difficult times, or hopes for a better life. Sunday afternoon, the bells of Saint Dionysius ring for the third time, for the English-speaking congregation, after the morning services in Greek and then Latin. Over 800 people, chiefly Filipinos and Africans, file into the church. The center pews are filled with about 50 Filipino children with their teacher. On the right, the members of the women’s choir are dressed in white robes with wide green collars. In front of them, the musicians tune their guitars. As soon as the priest has finished reading the first prayer, the hymns begin. «Why shouldn’t we sing hymns with a guitar accompaniment? We respect diversity,» Father Nikiforos explained. «We give all peoples the opportunity to retain their customs.» There are 12 Catholic parishes in Attica. The congregations comprise Greeks (about 25,000 in Athens alone) and Poles (60,000). Albanians from Catholic families but who had not been baptized because of the ban during the Hoxha regime are now being baptized en masse after studying the catechism. Montesquieu used to say that if the British distinguished themselves for something, it was commerce, freedom and piety. Sunday morning at St Paul’s in Filellinon Street appears to confirm the latter characteristic. Everyone from the British Consul to the immigrant laborer were following the service devoutly. «Please don’t distract the congregation,» the vicar asked us. «We don’t talk or whisper or walk around the church here like you do,» he said. At the entrance to the church, built with stone from Lycabettus and the island of Aegina in 1838, is a plaque commemorating the late British defense attache Steven Saunders, a victim of the November 17 terrorist group. Jewish wedding On Thiseion’s Melidoni Street is the Jewish synagogue, Beth Shalom. A police guard posted outside indicates the fear of attacks because of the situation in the Middle East. The Jewish Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, during which time photographs cannot be taken. The rabbi suggested we attend the wedding of Aaron and Noa the following Sunday. It was then that we learned the symbolism of the yarmulka, the cap worn by all the Jewish men in the synagogue as a sign of respect for the Almighty. After exchanging vows with his bride under a canopy, the groom drank holy wine and then crushed the glass under foot in remembrance of the destruction of Solomon’s temple. Elevator to mosque As I waited for the male photographer outside the building in Geraniou Street, I had the chance to witness the commerce between Chinese, Nigerians, Syrians and Egyptians in this busy district. Respect for diversity is all-pervasive in the narrow alleys around Sophocleous Street. «Is there a mosque here? Fancy that… I’ve been here for years and never knew,» said a next-door printer. Plans for the construction of a new mosque in Athens foundered after the Olympics, which would have been a perfect opportunity to provide the people of the Muslim faith with a proper place of worship. At the moment, a small elevator takes them to an upper floor where, after leaving their shoes out in the hall, they kneel in a cramped apartment, facing Mecca, as the imam reads from the Koran. Ethiopians We arrived late at the church of the Ethiopian Monophysites on Tourkovounia, where the service begins at 4.30 a.m. Women dressed white, their heads covered, filled the small, crowded church pervaded by the smell of incense. The priest intoned into an old-fashioned microphone, to occasional melodic cries from the congregation, who at one point began to dance to the beat of drums. Women dressed in blue formed lines and danced while waving wooden sticks, as huge colored umbrellas were opened to cover the flock, like a divine force protecting them from evil. Armenians in Nikaia Only a few Armenians remain in the city center to worship at the cathedral in Kreizi Street. The largest congregation is now in a church in Nikaia, where the Khachkar, their sacred symbol, is kept. A unique example of Armenian art, it is a cross carved from red stone and accredited with powers of healing and protection from disasters. Here the altar is open to the congregation, in contrast to the Orthodox custom. The priests wear slippers (shoes are forbidden). In AD 481 the Armenians withdrew from the Fourth Ecumenical Council and embraced Monophysitism, although today one rarely hears an Armenian draw attention to their differences with the Greek Orthodox Church. Evangelists It was Luther’s opposition to what he saw as the Roman Catholic Church’s economic exploitation of the faithful that led to the greatest religious reform ever to take place within the Christian world. The church of Aghios Andreas in Sina Street has its first Sunday service in German. The multiethnic congregation consists of over 20 nationalities, mostly Americans, Kenyans and Filipinos. Sikh community On Marathonos Avenue, where Sikhs from India have set up a makeshift temple, the faithful arrive on motorbikes and bicycles to hear the holy man, Grant, as he sways in his seat, every now and then flicking a stick to chase away evil. «We are trying to open a temple in the center, where all the people are,» said Rajmir, who has come with his family. Women are allowed to enter the temple but sit opposite the men. After the service there is food. First the men are served, then the women, and then they receive the blessings: «God is One and is True,» the essence of the teaching of Guru Nanak Dev, chanted by the 83 million Sikhs around the world. This article first appeared in the April 2 edition of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.