In crisis-hit Athens, plans for a mosque reveal deep divisions

ATHENS Thu Jun 27, 2013 4:46am EDT

1 of 14. Orthodox faithful attend a Sunday mass inside Agia Triada church at Piraeus port town near Athens June 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Yorgos Karahalis

ATHENS (Reuters) - Pakistani taxi driver Muhammad Zafeer says he has to look over his shoulder when he goes to pray in Athens, where racist attackers have targeted several of the many makeshift mosques set up in cramped garages or dingy warehouses.

So Greece's plan to build a state-funded mosque in the capital, more than a century in the making, comes as a relief, even if it will be housed in a disused naval base littered with weeds and rubble in a rundown neighborhood.

"This place used to be packed but these days people are scared to even go out to pray," said Zafeer, as Muslim men in long traditional robes and colorful caps prepared for Friday prayers behind the steel-grilled windows of a former factory.

"Greece has to decide if it will be democratic or if it will go back to the Middle Ages," he said with a shrug.

Reviving the long-stalled project during Greece's worst peacetime economic crisis has divided a country that spent four centuries under Turkish Ottoman rule, where the Orthodox Church is powerful and hostility towards immigrants is rising.

Soon after the government launched a tender in May to build the mosque, the far-right Golden Dawn party, which denies accusations of links to attacks on immigrants but says it wants to "rid Greece of their stench", pledged to "fight until the bitter end" to block the plan.

One local bishop, Seraphim, was so furious he took the matter to Greece's highest administrative court, the Council of State. A ruling is not expected for months.

The mosque's critics say Athens, kept afloat by an international bailout, cannot spare the almost one million euros it will cost given that Greece is in a sixth year of recession, with record high unemployment and sinking living standards.

"There's money to build a mosque but there's no money for Greeks to live with dignity," Golden Dawn, which polls show is the third most popular party in Greece, said in a statement.

Protests have been gathering steam outside the planned site at the naval base in Votanikos, a rundown industrial neighborhood lined with car dealerships and factories.

Led by the far-right National Front movement, flag-waving demonstrators including nuns and men in military-style shirts, chanted "If you want a mosque, build it in parliament!" at the first of the protests at the end of May.

Flyers depicting a mosque in a circle with a line through it were strewn across the floor.

"It's not exactly the best time to go ahead with it right now," said Theodore Couloumbis of the ELIAMEP foreign policy think tank. "The country has plenty of instability of its own due to the economic crisis".

"RIVERS OF BLOOD"

In the port of Piraeus, where hundreds of Greek Orthodox faithful packed the 174-year-old Holy Trinity church to hear Bishop Seraphim deliver Sunday mass, 62-year-old retired naval captain Ioannis Kaniaros called the decision "provocative".

Seraphim, who is challenging the decision in court, says building a mosque is unconstitutional and part of a plan to "Islamise" Greece, a major gateway for Asian immigrants trying to enter the European Union each year.

"I want to emphasize that Athens is the only European capital that went through four centuries of slavery under Islam, and managed to free itself just 200 years ago by spilling rivers of blood," he said in an interview.

Greece is home to about 1 million immigrants, and groups like Golden Dawn say undocumented workers have pushed up crime and put a burden on state resources at a time of crisis.

Muslim groups estimate more than 200,000 Muslims from countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh live in Athens alone.

Racially-motivated attacks have risen to alarming levels during the crisis, according to the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR, which said the authorities were doing little to tackle the problem.

At least one informal mosque has been set on fire. On another, someone has scrawled profanities in black paint.

"It's very important for us that the mosque is built. We would feel like we live in a free country, we would feel safe", said Shabaz Ahamed, a Pakistani Muslim motioning to a security monitor installed in his makeshift mosque after a group of men stormed in hurling abuse and threats a few months ago.

The city, which has not had a formal mosque since Greece won independence from occupying Ottomans in 1832, has come under fire by human rights groups such as Amnesty International for being one of the few European capitals without one.

Repeated plans for a post-Ottoman mosque in Athens began in earnest in 1880, with an act of parliament, but all fell through, including one timed for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Reports in local media that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered to fund a mosque in Athens to his Greek counterpart Antonis Samaras during talks earlier this year have also angered some Greeks, who feel a mosque would represent a continuing Turkish presence in the country.

While relations between the two neighbors have warmed and natural disasters in both countries have brought them closer, the two rivals have a history of enmity and came to the brink of war on several occasions, most recently in 1996.

Local media say the new mosque, which will hold about 400 worshippers, will not have a minaret so as to blend in with the environment and not resemble a mosque, but the government has provided few details.

The office of architect Alexandros Tombazis, which will design the building next to an existing chapel with a bell-tower, declined to comment, saying it has been advised by officials not to because the issue is "too sensitive".

Analysts say it could help Greece as it tries to lure foreign investment to its battered economy from cash-rich Gulf Arab states such as Qatar, which has pledged to invest up to 1 billion euros in Greek companies.

"It could facilitate Arab money to enter the Greek market - especially moderate Arab," Couloumbis said.

Stavros Kalogiannis, the former deputy development minister who signed the decision to disburse the funds in May, denied there was external pressure to build the mosque and said simply that it was a project "that had matured".

The mosque's supporters say Athens has gone too long without one and that its 1 million euro price tag is relatively small.

"Athens needs a mosque because there are Muslims living here - that's why," Athens Mayor Yiorgos Kaminis, a leftist, told Reuters, adding that Greece had to protect the right to religious freedom under its constitution.

"You buy a maisonette in (the Athens suburb of) Chalandri and it costs 500,000 euros and the country can't afford to build a mosque?" he asked. "It's not about money. I didn't see us doing anything when we had money."

(Additional reporting by Yorgos Karahalis; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Comments (5)
ALALAYIIIAAAA wrote:
breaking news for the ignorants:
there is no pakistani taxi drivers in greece.i have been to greece myself and i know that you need aproximatelly 40.000 euros to get a taxi licence (plus the car) so much for a poor homeless pakistani.
in addition only few thousand pakistanis no more than 30 thousands are legally in greece so the rest can’t even think imagine to go and issue taxi license because they will get busted.
stop inventing stories mrs. journalist.

Jun 27, 2013 6:41am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Giorgosc12 wrote:
I am Greek and consider myself to be moderate an quiet open minded and would not otherwise oppose building a mosque in Athens, but I do find it offensive and ridiculous that while the government is in huge debt, unemployment is 27%, living standards are falling and social cohesion in is close to collapse, the Government wants to finance the construction of a mosque. Why don’t muslim associations (from other countries or even Greece itself) finance it themselves? Peoples’ tax money countries should allowin Greece must first go to upgrading education, repaying our debt obligations, supporting the pension and social insurance funds etc. Yes, for freedom of religion, but it is plainly ridiculous that a government should sponsor the construction of various religious places (whether churches, synagogues or mosque). The people and associations who want to do it should pay for it. Its not the responsibility of a government to provide for religious areas but for religious freedom. This is what a secular state means! Otherwise lets go 200 years back!

Also, I would like to ask why this is a big deal generally and a whole fuss is made out of it. Saudi Arabia (where millions of Christians live and work as expats) does not have a single church. Further to this, any visitor is forced to abide to the religious rules applied there (i.e. women cannot drive, no-one can drink alcohol, women must be covered, religious police wonders around everywhere etc). I don’t read many articles about this in Reuters – maybe because they are so close allies of the US???

Jun 27, 2013 7:53am EDT  --  Report as abuse
crod526 wrote:
No government should be in the business of building churches,mosques or temples. The government’s role should be one to protect those people’s right to build one.

Jun 27, 2013 9:56am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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