Promise of Mosque Unfulfilled in Athens - LA Times, USA
- 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
"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
"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Abu Yassin, who asked that his full name not be
published, usually prays at the Arab-Hellenic Center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
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