SOCIETY

Visiting an Athens mosque

It’s around midday in a narrow side street off Aghiou Constantinou, a main thoroughfare in downtown Athens. A small group of Pakistani men are gathered inside a grocery store owned by a fellow member of the Pakistani community.

Up on the counter, next to empty bags and piles of food cans, sits a money box. ?Put money here for a mosque,? says a handwritten sign in Arabic and English.

People speak rather reluctantly about the idea. ?We are collecting money to build a mosque in the neighborhood, so we have a place where we can get together and pray,? says one man.

There are currently about 100 makeshift mosques in Athens, mainly in garages and basement apartments. Most of these spaces used to host businesses or were used as storage space for businesses that went bust. Locals are usually skeptical of accommodating a worship site for Muslims in their midst. But if left with no other option, property owners are generally willing to eventually rent their places for such a purpose.

Stepping into one such makeshift mosque frequented mostly by members of the Afghan community near Victoria Square, the first thing you notice is dozens of pairs of shoes at the entrance. The place smells like a gym. The walls are covered with Arabic writing. It is divided into separate rooms so that the prayer area is not visible from street level. One serves as a classroom for small children, while Abdullah, the head of the mosque, sits in another, which serves as his office, and, judging by the mattress on the floor, his bedroom. He is dressed in white and wears headgear. He came to Greece 10 months ago, he says, but could be deported at any moment.

Like most mosques in Athens, this one officially operates as a cultural center. While the adults pray, the children have lessons. No adult women are allowed inside the premises. If a member of the community dies, the acting imam collects money to send the body back home and help his family.

?Our children must learn their native tongue. Despite the problems, we are trying to keep this place in good condition. When I first came [to Greece], I saw my fellow Afghans hanging around Victoria Square. I wanted to do something to help them,? Abdullah tells me.

He speaks about his life and the difficulties facing the Afghan community. Our conversation is interrupted by a fellow Afghan who offers to provide more information. However, he skirts my questions about the site, preferring to speak about Afghan civilization instead.

Later I have an opportunity to talk to Anna Triantafyllidou, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence and a researcher with ELIAMEP, who tells me: ?These makeshift mosques in Athens and Thessaloniki started out as cultural centers, essentially gathering places, about six years ago. The cost is usually spread out between the 200-300 individuals who use the space, while one acts as imam and is responsible for taking care of the place.?

She thinks such sites are welcome, as religion offers those who frequent them support during difficult times and deters them from turning to crime.

Police sources say no link between mosques and criminal activity has been established. Locals, however, complain of increased traffic around the mosques, expressing concern that they also contribute to crime.

Such complaints could be addressed when and if the planned mosque in Votanikos finally opens, but works to complete the site are currently on hold.