ATHENS – With attention focused squarely on the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Greece's Muslims hailed the opening of a first official mosque – government-paid – the first time nearly 200 years after the Ottoman Occupation ended there had been an inauguration of their praying place.
Ironically, it came during a period of rising tension with Turkey, which is claiming waters off Greek islands as hunting grounds for oil and gas, and after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier converted the venerated ancient Orthodox Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople into a mosque.
At the same time, he has criticized Greece for not giving more rights to a Turkish minority, primarily along northern land borders with Turkey, and the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper gave faint praise to the new mosque.
“The move has finally shaken off the city's infamous reputation as the only European capital with no mosque, a status that was criticized by Muslims around the world,” the newspaper said, making no mention of Turkey not opening the Halki Seminary.
ATHENS – Muslims who live in Greece pray inside the first state-funded mosque in Athens on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
The mosque in Athens' Votanikos neighborhood opened quietly on Nov. 14 after a 14-year wait during which Muslims had to pray in basements, garages and makeshift places for worship.
“A long effort by successive governments since 2006, when Law 3512 was passed, has been completed. Greece sends a clear message inside and outside the country, of democracy, religious freedom and respect,” said General Secretary of Religions Giorgos Kalantzis, reported Kathimerini.
Prayers were held at the mosque in strict adherence to social distancing rules and other safety measures enforced across Greece to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it was said, presided over by it's first imam is Moroccan-born Zaki Mohammed, 49, a Greek citizen.
“I would like to start by thanking Allah that we finally have a mosque where we can pray, we can gather, we can talk about our matters,” he said imam in June, 2019 as plans were proceeding.
Ashir Haidar, a representative of the Shia Muslim community of Greece, described the upcoming opening at the time as “a dream come true.”
“It is a great gift from the Greek state to the Muslim community of Athens and it is a symbolic work that shows respect of the Greek state to the religion of Islam,” he said.
Supervised by the Greek state, the 350-person capacity mosque was paid for by Greek taxpayers, to the tune of 800,000 euros ($949,840) as many are facing layoffs with businesses closed during a second pandemic lockdown.
The mosque doesn't have a minaret or dome – unlike Aghia Sophia that is surrounded by minarets – and was stalled by constant bureaucratic delays and threats from nationalists, led by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party whose leaders are now in jail after being convicted of running a criminal gang.
A ceremony took place on June 7, 2019, when the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA government’s Minister for Religious Affairs, Kostas Gavroglou, presided but it was then locked, the opening coming under the New Democracy government.
The first state-funded mosque in Athens during a Friday prayer on Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
In a Feb. 219, 2019 article in The Financial Times with reporter Madeleine Speed, Naim el-Ghandour, who runs the Muslim Association of Athens and spent years lobbying politicians, spoke of his frustration.
“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,” he continued.
There are an estimated 300,000 Muslims in the greater Athens area, the Turkish newspaper said but they are continuing to complain despite being given the gift of the mosque, wanting greater rights and upset that mosques and buildings from the Ottoman era in other cities, including Ioannina, Giannitsa, Larisa, Kavala and on Crete aren't operating for them so far.