The battle to build a mosque in Athens

Financial Times Magazine

by Madeleine Speed

The city has about 250,000 Muslims – but no official place for them to worship. Why?

The construction site of the Athens Mosque is closed. Sandwiched between a naval base and a bus garage in the rundown Votanikos district, the unfinished structure is obscured from view by high walls. The entrance looks more like a ­barricade, fortified with barbed wire and corrugated iron. Above four wooden crucifixes fixed to the wire the words “Orthodoxia i Thanatos” (Orthodoxy or Death) are emblazoned in red spray paint. To the left of the locked gate, leaflets bearing racist and nationalist slogans are layered over graffiti scrawls of “Stop Islam”. It’s been more than a decade since a presidential decree put an end to years of government indecision and gave the go-ahead for the first official Muslim place of worship to be built in Athens since the days of the Ottoman empire. Following further delays, members of parliament finally voted in favour of a measure to accelerate the construction process in August 2016. Yet, more than two years later, the mosque remains unopened. Opposition to the plans has been strong. Last September, hundreds of supporters of the far-right, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which has 15 seats in parliament, staged a rally at the site to protest against the state-funded building project. In recent years, some party supporters have allegedly launched brutal attacks on refugees, according to the UN and Amnesty International. The latest delays have seen the inauguration of the mosque pushed back to this summer. A spokesperson from the ministry of education and religious affairs says “the building is ready” and just needs “necessary” works in the surrounding area.

Some of the city’s approximately 250,000 Muslims doubt it will ever open. They continue to pray in makeshift prayer rooms, basements and garages across the city. Naim el-Ghandour, who runs the Muslim Association of Athens with his wife Anna Stamou, has spent years lobbying politicians. “I try to stay romantic about Greece and not feel that [politicians] manipulated me,” says el-Ghandour, an Egyptian businessman who has lived in Greece since 1974. “My children go to school, to university, live equally with Greek children. But when they go to pray, one goes to church and the other goes to an underground garage. This proves to the young Muslim that he is not an equal citizen.” The battle over the Athens mosque reflects broader debates about integration and the rise of nativist feeling in Europe. Like many other EU states, Greece has seen a surge of popularity for far-right movements that play on the public’s anxieties around uncontrolled immigration. During the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean that began in 2015, Greece was the initial landing place for more than a million people fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In an austerity-hit economy still suffering from the fallout of the financial crisis, the state has struggled to accommodate and process the thousands of asylum seekers in the Aegean islands who hoped to find a home elsewhere in Europe. Some 17,000 remain stuck in squalid conditions in detention camps like Moria on Lesbos island.

However, attempts to build a mosque in Athens long predate contemporary debates about Muslim integration in Europe. Plans for an official mosque were set out in 1890, with different plots of land allocated again in 1934, then in 2004, in advance of the Athens Olympics. None came to fruition. According to Effie Fokas, senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, “Politicians are lacking in bravery in all kinds of matters and this is one of them. It has always been a very sensitive issue and putting it off is what we’ve always done. That’s the status quo.” If you stand beside the mosque site and look east, the main road, built along the Iera Odos, or Sacred Way, leads directly to the Parthenon. The temple, perched high on the Acropolis, has dominated the Athenian landscape for nearly 2,500 years. Nestled beneath it is Plaka, Athens’ historical centre, and Monastiraki square. Monastiraki, which means “little monastery”, was named after the square’s church, which is estimated to date back to the 12th century, when Athens was part of the Byzantine Empire. In the adjacent corner of the square is the Ottoman-era Tzistarakis Mosque, established in the late 1700s by the then governor of Athens. Now home to the Museum of Greek Folk Art, it is one of only two former mosques still standing in a city which saw 400 years of Ottoman rule. The second, the Fethiye, stands just beyond Monastiraki square, on the ancient site of the Roman agora. Renovated and reopened in 2017 as an exhibition space, there is nothing to indicate the building’s original use, other than a small stone sign, reading “Fethiye Djami”, placed out of sight and far from the entrance. My children go to school, to university, live equally with Greek children. But when they go to pray, one goes to church and the other goes to an underground garage Naim el-Ghandour, an Egyptian businessman who has lived in Greece since 1974 On the eve of the 1821 revolution, which freed the country from Ottoman rule, Athens was a multicultural settlement of about 12,000 inhabitants. But as the modern Greek state built itself a new national identity, there was a systematic destruction of the city’s Ottoman architecture.

Resentment against Ottoman rule still lingers and is often invoked by those who feel a mosque in Athens would erase the struggles of the independence movement. In November 2016, the leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, denounced the Greek parliament as traitors for voting in favour of its construction. Aligning contemporary Islam and Ottoman rule, he called the new mosque a “shrine to slavery”, adding: “A mosque in the shadow of the Acropolis. Are we returning to Turkish occupation? Because the Parthenon too was a mosque. We cannot rule out that they demand it becomes a mosque once again . . . Illegal immigrants are immune, uncontrolled in our fatherland.” Golden Dawn and its ideology represent the furthest extreme of rightwing Greek politics, but the conflation of the Ottoman empire and the modern Turkish state, Greece’s neighbour and historic rival, is still surprisingly prevalent. In 2013, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed funding the renovation of the Fethiye into a working mosque with the Greek prime minister of the time, Antonis Samaras. Reports of the meeting angered some Greeks, who saw it as a political concession to Turkey. The scheme was abandoned. The current Syriza government was adamant that when it came to the Athens Mosque, there would be no question of foreign funding. A source from the ministry of education and religious affairs, who didn’t wish to be named, explains: “Do you know what Fethiye means? It means conqueror. [Converting the mosque with Turkish funds] would be like saying, ‘Thank you for slaughtering our ancestors . . . ’ Our answer is no.” In a quiet street in Neos Kosmos (new world), Naim el-Ghandour is recitingthe call to prayer. It’s Friday, and about 150 people are gathering for Jumu’ah, the weekly congregational prayer at the al-Salam mosque. An unassuming garage entrance leads down into a low-ceilinged yet sizeable basement, where a dozen men are already kneeling on the carpet.

Al-Salam is one of approximately 120 makeshift mosques in the Greek capital, and one of only six that have acquired a permit from the state. Through the outdated sound system, el-Ghandour’s voice is remote and wavering. At one point, the sound cuts entirely and the call continues unamplified as congregants arrive. A lone woman enters, covering her head haphazardly in her winter scarf before disappearing behind a curtain at the back of the room. After prayers, Mohamed Rassas, Mat Mihyar and Essam Abu Shamala have their weekly catch-up over cold espresso at a nearby café. All three moved to Athens as children in the 1980s, when the city’s Muslim communities were made up mainly of Egyptians, Palestinians and South Asians. Rassas, a Palestinian television programmer, inherited the building from his father, who converted the basement into a mosque for local Arab families. “Back in the 1980s and 90s, we didn’t have refugees. It was a very good quality of immigrant: investors, students, doctors, who came here for work, for university — you know, for a better life,” he explains, leaning back in his chair. “Now people don’t want to leave their countries but they have to. They don’t have a plan to study or to invest. They just want to be safe.” He has noticed a difference in how Greeks react to him. “In the 90s, [the Greeks] used to be very friendly with us. Today you can see the look.” A 2017 survey conducted by the Dianeosis Research and Policy Institute revealed that only 36.3 per cent of the Greek population reacted positively to the word “Muslim”. Iason Zarikos, co-author of the Greek chapter of the Counter-Islamophobia Kit, a Europe-wide research project, suggests, this is not evidence of widespread Islamophobia, but rather of a pervasive indifference. “This comes from a deep insensitivity of the Greek state towards religious minorities in general, not only Muslims. Indifference is the root of the [mosque] delays, not bureaucracy,” says Zarikos, adding that, after 2015, the concept of Islamophobia rose to prominence: “We found the ideological accelerator was Isis and the flows of refugees.” In its annual survey, the European Commission found that, between 2015 and 2016, the percentage of Greeks who believed immigration to be the country’s greatest concern jumped from 26.5 per cent to 40.5 per cent. This year, 21 of the 28 EU member states cited it as their chief concern, with terrorism second.

Lefteris Papagiannakis’s role as vice-mayor of migration for the municipality of Athens was created in 2016. He is quick to point out that until the European migrant crisis, an integration policy for the city’s immigrants had never been set out. “There was no policy and there was no integration in general,” he explains. “I mean, there were plans, but the actual implementation . . . The migrant communities in Greece have integrated on their own.” Why did it take a crisis for a policy to emerge? “Greece never wanted to integrate foreigners,” explains Papagiannakis. “We were very happy having migrants working the fields, doing things for us so we could enjoy the European way of life. But, much more than that, we didn’t want them to become Greek. Because, as you know, you cannot become Greek,” he says with irony. “You have to be born Greek. This is the nationalistic approach all over Europe.” We were happy having migrants working the fields, doing stuff for us. But we didn’t want them to become Greek. This is the nationalistic approach all over Europe Lefteris Papagiannakis, Athens’ vice-mayor of migration At the café, Mihyar, who has just graduated as a doctor, says: “It’s not racism. It’s that [the Greeks] are not accepting of other cultures because they’re not used to it. They’ve never lived the multicultural system.” He and his friend Abu Shamala believe accepting religious pluralism is an inevitable next step for Greece as it becomes more tolerant of its new migrant populations. Mihyar shows me pictures on his phone of church spires beside minarets in his home town in Jordan. “We have churches next to mosques that have been established for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, and they’ve lived side to side. It is possible,” he says. Abu Shamala agrees. “History proved to us it’s possible.” In Greece, however, recent history has also suggested otherwise. Since 2006, pushback against the mosque’s construction has frequently come from the Orthodox Church. While the current Archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, has supported the mosque in his latest statements, in 2016 he voiced concerns that it would become a breeding ground for radicalism. In an interview with the Greek channel Skai TV he asked: “Are these people going to pray there or will mosques become schools for jihadism and fundamentalism? Who is going to monitor this?” Yannis Ktistakis, a professor of international law, believes the stasis on the mosque issue comes down to the power the church continues to wield in domestic affairs. “[Syriza] thought the Archbishop would be disappointed with them if they opened the mosque during his term as the head of the church,” he says. “Every politician knows the Greek church has political power, and this power could be against them in the upcoming elections.” Greece’s constitution recognises the Eastern Orthodox Church as the country’s prevailing religion. Until 2015, when the atheist Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras assumed the role, every prime minister had been sworn in under religious oath. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre reported that 76 per cent of Greeks believe adherence to Orthodox Christianity is important to being “truly Greek”. The linking of Greece’s national identity and ancient legacy with its Christian Orthodox tradition is now a key tenet of Greek nationalist ideology. It’s a line of argument used not only by groups such as Golden Dawn but by members of the clergy.

When plans were first put forward to renovate the Monastiraki mosque in 2006, the then Archbishop Christodoulos objected on the grounds that the site was too central, “below the Acropolis” and close to the Orthodox Cathedral of Athens. Until 2014, any religions other than Orthodoxy, Judaism and Islam (for the Turkish Muslim community of northern Greece only) were not legally permitted to open places of worship as religious entities. Religions had to be registered as “legal entities of private law”. With the law change, groups can now request permits to establish places of worship. Yet, says, Effie Fokas, “The church has not been welcoming, not only of Muslims as a group. Greece is first in the European Court of Human Rights for violations of religious freedoms. Four years ago, we were responsible for 20 per cent of all violations. It just shows resistance at so many different levels.” Since 2016, the inauguration of the mosque has been pushed back on three occasions. Petitions to stall proceedings further are still being processed in court. But Anna Stamou, a Greek who converted to Islam, refuses to give up. “We fight this for our children. We give them thousands of excuses; it is a public work, it has delays. But someday we will run out of excuses.” At 1,000 sq m, the Athens Mosque will, when completed, hold up to 300 male and 50 female congregants, nowhere near enough to accommodate the city’s Muslim population. But Fokas argues that the mosque is, above all, of symbolic importance: “Politically the government needs to express a welcoming [to Muslims].”

At the Asy-Syafi’i basement mosque in the Vathi neighbourhood of Athens, imam Abdirahman Said explains that for his community, the mosque in Votanikos is simply too far or too expensive to travel to. Said arrived in Athens in 2017. Many of his congregants are refugees who, like him, fled violence in Somalia. Like most basement mosques in Athens, the Asy-Syafi’i relies on congregant donations. In recent months, it has struggled to gather the €600 needed for rent and electricity bills. He is anxious about the future. The ministry has announced that, once the new mosque is inaugurated, any mosque that fails to meet its legal requirements will be shut. The provisions laid out in the documents for “religions and denominations other than the Church of Greece” are extensive. Fokas calls the laws required to get a new permit “ridiculous”. Opening the new mosque may not be a major priority for any government, “but worse than not opening would be to try and close the unofficial mosques. They are far more important to community identity.” Down a deserted street in Piraeus, a drumbeat emanates from a basement mosque where Shia Muslims are celebrating the end of a period of mourning for the death of the martyr Husayn ibn Ali. As the songs and prayers subside, the congregation heads up on to the street where they dance and shout in celebration. Ashir Haider, a journalist and system administrator, is a deputy board member of the new mosque in Votanikos. His father established the Piraeus mosque in 1976 and spent all his life in the area, building bridges between the local Muslim community and the Greek authorities. Haider believes that Muslim communities must now shoulder more responsibility when it comes to seeking official recognition by the state of their places of worship.

“It’s on the communities to rent safer places for the worshippers,” he says. And those that can barely afford a basement? “This is the problem,” he says. “But why don’t we explain that we don’t find other places because we don’t have financial ease?” But wider acceptance of Muslim communities has long been hindered by their reluctance to live and worship publicly. “The first Muslim migrants in Greece witnessed a huge misunderstanding. Everyone who was Muslim was treated as Turkish,” Haider says. Sensing animosity, they hid their religious activity. “Take this place,” he says. “They chose industrial areas, far from residential neighbourhoods, to not create problems with neighbours.” Despite the glacial pace with which the state has acted in recognising Islam and other non-Orthodox religions, Haider believes that times are changing, although, ironically, the basement mosque his father founded fails to meet the regulations required for a permit. Is he worried that once the new mosque is inaugurated, this one will be shut down? He smiles. “The state took 35 years to build the first official mosque,” he says. “If they have plans to shut [us] down, I think it’s justified that they should give us 350 years to get legalised.”