A minaret on the horizon?

ATHENS – In a small, cold and decrepit apartment in central Athens, scores of Muslims trip over each other trying to find a space to pray as rain drips onto their heads from the leaky roof. The stairwell is in darkness and there is grime in every corner. But for these faithful, there is no other choice. About 130 makeshift mosques like this – windowless, airless basements or rooms in warehouses – are all these Muslims have until the Greek capital’s first mosque is erected. «On Friday, many people come here for prayer; it’s a very old and congested place. We are afraid a slab is going to fall on us, and it’s raining (inside),» said Monjur Moshed, an immigrant from Bangladesh who was in the crowded apartment. A mosque has long been planned for the estimated 150,000 Muslims living in Athens but has been held up by objections from the powerful Orthodox Church, and the public. Studded with minarets two centuries ago, Athens has not had a functioning mosque since the end of Ottoman rule in the early 1800s. The only working mosques are near the Turkish border in the northern Greek prefecture of Xanthi, home to a Muslim minority of some 120,000, remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Although the steady immigration of Muslims to Athens continues – mostly economic migrants from the Middle East and Asia – the city remains the only capital in western Europe without an Islamic place of worship. Decades of waiting Muslims say holidays and funerals pose the most problems, as thousands of people spill out onto the city’s streets, a sight they fear will create resentment among neighbors. «As people gather here, at some point they end up outside in the street to hold religious festivals. I believe surely in this environment there could be a problem with the community,» said Tahir Ali Shah, a Pakistani Muslim doctor. Government plans for a mosque and an adjoining Islamic cultural center date back to 1979, with funding pledged by Saudi Arabia. Officials say the government remains committed to building the mosque, but admit it is a sensitive issue. Opposition from the Greek Orthodox Church, coupled with resentment after some 400 years of Ottoman rule and past political rivalries with mainly Muslim Turkey, have created reservations among Greeks, who are 95 percent Orthodox. The plan seemed close to materializing when the capital hosted the 2004 Olympic Games – authorities promised a mosque and Islamic center would be built for Muslim athletes. A site was chosen 35 km (21 miles) outside the city after the Orthodox Church expressed displeasure over the prospect of a minaret rising on the Athens skyline. But construction in the town of Paeania, near the international airport, never began. Not in our town Incensed by the project, the town’s residents built a large wooden cross on the land allocated for the mosque. A small Orthodox chapel has also appeared on the site. Paeania Mayor Paraskevas Papacostopoulos said residents are angry that the site is on a hill, meaning the mosque will be visible from afar and seen by visitors flying into the airport. «It spoils the religious and cultural character of our region, as well as all of Greece,» he said. «It’s not pleasant to enter a country and the first thing you see is a mosque.» He said residents also did not want thousands of worshippers congregating in their town. «Our residents look at it as a foreign object in their area that is being forced on them without anyone asking their opinion,» he said. The Orthodox Church, which had long opposed the mosque, has recently softened its stance. But although it gave its approval to the mosque, it still opposes the cultural center. It says recent attacks by suspected militants in European capitals have fueled its concerns that the Islamic center may incite fundamentalism. «The Church of Greece does not find this center necessary for the worship needs of the Muslim community in Athens; it thinks that it may operate, as European experience has shown, as a hotbed of extreme fundamentalist views,» said Haris Konidaris, spokesman for the Orthodox Church of Greece. Muslims say Paeania is too far away for a community mainly based in central Athens but their options are limited. «It’s far from the center (of Athens), but it’s better than nothing,» said Shah.