Mosque in Athens up ‘by 2009’

The government has earmarked some 15 million euros for the construction of a state-funded mosque in Elaionas near the center of Athens by 2009, Education and Religious Affairs Minister Marietta Giannakou said yesterday. The long-delayed project will provide an official house of worship for tens of thousands of Muslims who have been using apartments and converted coffee shops as makeshift prayer houses for years. According to a draft bill unveiled by Giannakou yesterday, the mosque will be built on a large plot of land owned by the Greek navy, in the same area that Athens soccer team Panathinaikos is due to build its new home ground. The bill is to be submitted to Parliament after municipal elections at the end of next week. «It would be insensitive to deprive (Muslims) who are far from home of a decent place of worship,» Giannakou told a press conference. A previous proposal to build a mosque outside Athens ahead of the 2004 Olympics was blocked following objections by residents and opposition from the Greek Orthodox Church, which disagreed with the location and plans for funding from Saudi Arabia. However, Archbishop Christodoulos approved the new plan during recent talks with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, Giannakou said. The chairman of the Muslim Union of Greece, Maazen Rassas, welcomed Giannakou’s announcement, describing it in a statement to Agence France-Presse as «very good news, as long as there are actions, not just words.» Under the terms of the draft law, the Athens mosque will be run by a non-profit organization staffed by Greek state officials and members of the capital’s Muslim communities. The head imam of the new mosque will be appointed by a government-backed committee and be paid by the ministry. «We do not intend to interfere in the religious affairs of the mosque. We will create the provisions for the site to operate,» Giannakou said. At present, the only mosques in Greece are in the northeastern region of Thrace, home to some 100,000 Muslims.