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Promise of Mosque Unfulfilled in Athens - LA Times, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Promise of Mosque Unfulfilled in Athens By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 18, 2004
      Promise of Mosque Unfulfilled in Athens
      By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer


      ATHENS — Muslims in the Greek capital can pray in a
      small room at a crowded cultural center, wedged
      between a clinic and a schoolroom, or in one of
      several makeshift basement venues.

      But government promises to build an official mosque
      for the city's growing Islamic community remain
      unfulfilled, sidelined by opposition from the powerful
      Christian Orthodox Church and a small group of
      neighborhood activists.

      "There is no proper place for us to go and pray," said
      Abu Yassin, an electrician who moved to Greece from
      the Gaza Strip 20 years ago. "There are thousands of
      Muslims here, and we don't have a place to gather."

      On this score, Athens stands alone: It is the only
      European Union capital without an official mosque.

      In fact, none has existed here for nearly 200 years,
      following the end of four centuries of Muslim Ottoman
      rule. Greeks' antipathy toward their historic Turkish
      enemy has sometimes colored the way in which Muslims
      are viewed, analysts and human rights advocates say.

      To allay that impression and showcase Greek tolerance
      just in time for this summer's Olympic Games in
      Athens, the government of former Prime Minister Costas
      Simitis announced the construction of an enormous
      mosque and Islamic educational center, financed by
      Saudi Arabia and scheduled to go up on an eight-acre
      plot of suburban land.

      Nearly a year after the announcement, however, nary a
      brick has been laid.

      Outraged residents of Peania, the chosen suburb,
      challenged the government plan in court. They were not
      being racist, they said, it's just that there are no
      Muslims in the area 12 miles northeast of downtown
      Athens, so why give them a house of worship there?

      The Orthodox Church, which counts as its members an
      estimated 97% of Greece's 10 million native-born
      citizens, also objected to the location. Peania lies
      near Athens' brand-new international airport, meaning
      travelers arriving on airplanes would easily glimpse a
      towering minaret.

      "Does the first image of Greece a foreigner sees have
      to be a Muslim mosque?" asked the church's spokesman,
      Father Epifanios Economou.

      Church leaders insist that they do not object to the
      building of a mosque in principle.

      Several Muslims and their advocates also have a
      problem with the Peania location, noting that it could
      take worshipers hours to get there.

      Abu Yassin, who asked that his full name not be
      published, usually prays at the Arab-Hellenic Center
      for Culture and Civilization, a two-story walk-up near
      downtown. It is not a mosque, but Muslims crowd into
      the upper floor on Fridays — the overflow sometimes
      running down the stairs and onto the street — for
      prayers led by an unofficial imam.

      The center also provides medical services, computer
      lessons and child care.

      For at least a decade, Abu Yassin said, he's heard
      Greek governments float the idea of building an
      official mosque. He thought that the Olympics would
      finally provide the incentive for getting it done.

      "The Olympics are almost here," he said, "and

      Greece has about 130,000 Muslim residents, according
      to spokesmen for the community, with the majority
      living in the north, where there are mosques. But
      thousands of Muslims have moved into Athens in recent
      years as part of a wave of economic immigration into
      the eastern flanks of the European Union.

      Muslims in Greece are a polyglot bunch, from Albania,
      Pakistan, Sudan, Lebanon and numerous other nations.
      Many work in construction and are much in demand these
      days because of the boom in building ahead of the

      That boom, for now, doesn't include a mosque.

      Gregory Vallianatos, an activist with the Greek
      Helsinki Monitor human rights organization, said he
      had doubts the mosque would become a reality because
      of festering hostility and suspicion toward Muslims.

      "Homogeneity is adored in this country," he said.

      Government officials disagreed. Tassos Yiannitsis,
      until recently foreign minister, said the "political
      decision" to give Muslims a proper place of worship
      was firm and unshakable and that the Greek government
      was committed to creating an "inclusive, integrated
      society." But, he added, it will take time.

      "We know people here have a need," Yiannitsis said in
      an interview. "But we need a solution that doesn't
      create tensions."

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