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Letter from Athens: Only One Place in Greece for Muslims to Bury Dead

May 15, 2022

First they were denied a real place of worship in a country which demands religious tolerance for Greek Orthodoxy abroad but not for other religions in Greece, lip service aside.

To be sure, they should have paid for it, not left it to the Greek state to build it for them, which left them looking like grateful beggars, when, instead rich sponsors in their own community here and in other countries could have put up the money that pays for independence.

That was only after, of course, they were allowed to have their first official place to worship, a mosque, replacing cellars and warehouses and empty rooms in buildings to which they had been relegated by indifferent governments who promised that practice would end.

It took too many years and, in the end, despite zealous opposition from crazed nationalist right-wingers and even some in the Greek Orthodox Church, an official mosque opened in Athens and there’s been no complaints, no calls to prayer and no trouble.

Now Greece’s Muslims want the simple decency of their own burial ground in Athens – there’s one in Thrace – and, based on the track record of bureaucracy, religious whack jobs who think theirs is the only one, and the inevitable conspiracy theories, that will probably take years too.

Why? Why can’t people of a different religious persuasion not have their own cemetery? It seems the Christian thing to do.

In the year 2022 – not 1822 when Greeks were coming out of 400 years of being denied religious freedom by the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire that fell – all empires fall – a group of peoples, Muslims, want a cemetery for their own. Where’s the argument against that?

The call came, curiously at a news conference held jointly by the Afghan and Pakistani communities, the Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat (KEERFA) and, for whatever reason, lawmakers from the major rival SYRIZA.

The Leftists were in power for 4 ½ years and had their chance to create one but former minister Nikos Filis, who clashed with the Church and even his own leader and former premier Alexis Tsipras, pulled a Ralph Kramden ‘hummana hummana’ when trying to explain why his party didn’t do it then, instead of calling for it now, when the anti-refugee New Democracy is in power.

“This cemetery is a matter of democratic order, a matter of respect for human rights,” he said, but blaming “contracting interests” for SYRIZA’s failure to do anything about it, without explaining what the hell is the meaning of what he said – because there isn’t one.

This is a guy, who while leading the Education Ministry, said excellence in education wasn’t a virtue, was Secretary of the Youth of the Communist party, to which he is so devoted he doesn’t belong to the party, so his commitments move with the wind.

He denied the Pontic Greek Genocide, which is a crime in Greece but wasn’t prosecuted for it, making him a fugitive from the law even longer than PAOK soccer team owner Ivan ‘The Terrible’ Savvidis, who was charged with bringing a gun on the field but never prosecuted.

The request for the cemetery came through the family of a refugee family whose 5-year-old son was killed when run over by a truck at the detention center where they are kept while seeking asylum, which in Greece can take longer than getting a driver’s license without paying a bribe.

The child was buried in the cemetery of Schistos, said Kathimerini in a report on the news conference that really should have taken place at the office of Archbishop Ieronymos, who should be the first one to support Muslims having a cemetery. The Church fought the idea of cremation for years, believing only bones are sacred, even if, when the time comes for routine exhumations to allow removal from coffins, sometimes it is found that the bodies haven’t gotten quite that far. Don’t remember it being said “bones to bones” though.

Greece won’t even allow Muslims to appoint their own muftis, jurists who rule on important points of Islamic law. Why not? It’s their religion, let them pick their own leaders.

Greece refuses to call a Turk a Turk because the Turkish minority in Western Thrace is defined as a Muslim minority in the 1923 Lausanne Treaty – which Turkey’s President doesn’t recognize, so there goes the basis for the argument although “a Turk is a Turk and a Greek is a Greek.”

Zorba ended that silliness when he showed the Englishman scars on his body on one side by Turks and the other by Greeks only to say: “What do I care if a man is Turk or Greek? All I care is that he’s a good man.”

People tend to resist or reject something they don’t understand, and it’s because they don’t want to listen. When they do, they are more apt to be accepting, including of someone else’s religion. That’s tolerance. The opposite is ignorance.

As Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe said at the end of The Big Sleep: “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”

Unless, of course, you’re a Muslim who falls in Greece.

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