ATHENS — Supporters of Greece’s ultra-extreme right Golden Dawn party staged a protest in the Greek Capital’s downtown against plans to build a state-funded mosque in the Greek capital.
Authorities used riot police buses to block roads near the construction site during the Sept. 5 rally which ended with no reported arrests despite the party’s vehement stance against the mosque and with its leader and its other 14 Members of Parliament in the third year of a trial on charges of running a criminal gang, along with dozens of its members.
After years of delays, the government has agreed to build the mosque in an old industrial area of Athens to serve its large Muslim migrant community as well as tourists. Muslims currently use prayer houses set up unofficially, including in basements, warehouses and wherever makeshift centers can be set up.
Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos spoke at the rally and described members of Greece’s left-wing government as being “traitors.”
Once openly neo-Nazi, the party continues to rank third or fourth in polls after seeing a surge in support during years of financial crisis and keeping its extreme hard core despite the trial.
The ruling Radical Left SYRIZA is behind building the mosque. Work at the plot in Votanikos in central Athens has already begun but Kathimerini said other problems, such as tenders for construction works that will allow access to the place of worship and its interior design – have set the opening date back by at least a year.
In August, 2017, the Education and Religious Affairs Ministry set up a seven-member administrative board to oversee the running of the mosque.
The council comprises two ministry officials, two City Hall representatives, two representatives of the capital’s Muslim communities and a legal expert.
The panel is led by Constantinos Pittadakis, a senior official from the ministry’s General Secretariat for Religious Affairs after critics earlier said they wanted to make sure that foreign funding and terrorist influences would be prohibited.
Athens Deputy Mayor Nelly Papachela said city officials want the mosque to help relations with the Muslim community, which has to use makeshift unofficial mosques in places such as basements and warehouses.
“The desire of the City of Athens is that the mosque operates properly,” Papachela told the paper.. “We want the exercise of religious duties to be conducted calmly and for there to be no problems,” she said, adding that municipal authorities were determined “to defy any fears” that citizens may have.
The major rival New Democracy wants the government to control any sources of outside funding and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are the junior partners in the coalition led by the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA oppose the project.
The prayer venue – a 1,000-square meter building without a minaret, split over two levels – will be able to accommodate about 350 worshippers.
The Infrastructure Ministry said the construction is behind schedule because protests last year held up the start of the scheme. Also, the government has asked for old buildings that are on the site to be knocked down.
This work had not been originally envisioned as part of the project, which is being carried out by a consortium consisting of J&P-Avax, Terna, Aktor and Intrakat.
The government is bearing the 800,000-euro ($850,920) cost during a crushing economic crisis as it’s been cutting pension benefits and education and health care budgets.
The 1,000-square meter facility will include a worship area for 300 men, a worship area for 50 women, auxiliary rooms, an office for the imam and an office for the muezzin.
Golden Dawn officials earlier said the mosque “will not have a good end,” in an ominous warning from Ilias Panagiotaros, one of the most strident of the party’s lawmakers, all of whom are on trial on charges of running a criminal gang.
He said, “With the help of God – I repeat that – this mosque will not have a good end,” the news agency Reuters reported.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)