In a decision by the Greek government that has stunned natives, especially those who recall centuries of Islamic rule under the Ottoman Empire, a mosque will be built in Athens at taxpayer expense. The Greek Ministry for Infrastructure, Transport and Networks announced last week that it has chosen the builders who will erect the mosque. The worship center will cover 6,500 square feet and cost Greek taxpayers some $1.3 million. Work will commence at the beginning of the New Year.
 
The project involves the renovation of an existing government-owned building on a former naval facility in the Votanikos district near the center of Athens. The mosque will accommodate 500 worshippers, but will not have minarets.
 
Critics of the mosque say that no taxpayer should have to pay for a mosque when Greece, which is bearing a huge foreign debt, is relying on foreign aid to stay afloat. Currently, Greece’s economy has hobbled along during six years of recession. Indeed, it shrank by another 3 percent during the third quarter of 2013. The unemployment rate has surpassed 27 percent overall, while young people under 25 are seeing an unemployment rate of 60 percent. 
 
 
(Fethiye mosque, built in 1456 on the ruins of a Byzantine church)
 
Observers theorize that the Greek government has bowed to thinly veiled threats of violence by the thousands of Muslims living in Greece who have demanded a mosque. Greece has long had a Muslim population that official estimates peg at 500,000. Most of these reside in Thrace, which borders the small territory that borders Turkey’s European territory just north of the Straits of the Dardanelles and Istanbul. However, in recent years, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Mideast, Africa and Asia have entered the country. While some sought to reach the relatively wealthier countries in northern Europe, many have stayed. Greece is now believed to harbor an illegal immigrant population of 2 million, with a total population of but 11 million. As is the case in other European countries, Muslims in Greece have often prayed in the streets, coffee shops, and old warehouses, for the lack of mosques. All told, there are believed to be more than 130 unlicensed Muslim prayer sites scattered across Athens alone.
 
The decision to bow to the Muslim demands has jarred the Greek’s sense of identity. Indeed, for years Greek passports noted the bearers’ nationality as ‘Orthodox’ rather than ‘Greek’, in tribute to the Greek Orthodox Christian faith that most Greeks confess. Athens has not had an official mosque since 1832, when Americans, Europeans, and Greeks successfully threw off the yoke of the Islamic Ottoman rule that they had endured for 400 years. It is in eastern Thrace where Muslims of Greek nationality, who largely speak Turkish, in the town of Komotini, where the only official mosque in the country is located. 
 
A proposal by Saudi Arabia to pay for the construction of a huge mosque near the international airport in Paiania, an Athens suburb, in advance of the 2004 Summer Olympics was abandoned due to opposition from the Orthodox Church.  Later, in 2006, the Greek government committed to spending $20 million on an Athens mosque within three years. A public uproar scotched those plans. Muslims in Greece then accepted a $3.4 million donation from a wealthy Saudi, which a small nonprofit, the Greek-Arab Educational and Cultural Centre, to retrofit a former textile plant into a prayer site measuring 19,500 square feet. This site can hold more than 2,000 worshippers. Matters became much more heated when the Muslim Association of Greece, which claims to represent all Muslims living in Greece and is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, organized provocative mass public prayer rallies throughout Athens to pressure the government into building an official mosque with public funds.
 
The connection to the Muslim Brotherhood
 
In public sessions identical to those held in Spain and France, Muslims in Greece gathered in 15 different places throughout Athens. For example, more than 1,000 Muslims seized the public square at the University of Athens and held public prayers to mark the beginning of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim festival. At that event, police mustered more than 7,000 officers to restore order. In 2011, the government gave permission for the celebration of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month – at the stadium where the first modern Olympiad was held. Permission was granted so as to prevent Muslim mobs from occupying public squares. In September 2011, Muslims protested that they had been marginalized to the suburbs during the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) and thus held open-air prayers downtown. They were met with non-Muslim protesters who threw eggs at them. Members of the controversial nationalist party known as ‘Golden Dawn’ threatened to physically remove the Muslim worshippers, but were prevented by heavily armed riot police.
 
Muslim mob violence
 
Athens had already had its share of confrontations with militant Muslims. For example, more than 1,000 Muslims crying “Allah is great” grappled with police in the city center. Muslims were apparently angered by claims that a Greek police officer had trampled on a copy of the Koran at a Muslim-owned café. This is an accusation, with variations, that is frequently repeated elsewhere and that has had deadly consequences for non-Muslims. During the riot, 50 Muslim protesters were arrested and seven Muslims were hospitalized. In addition, seven law enforcement officers were also hospitalized.  During the fracas, more than 70 automobiles were incinerated by the protesters and 12 businesses destroyed. In an interview with French media at the time, Chairman Naim El-Ghandour of the Muslim Association of Greece threatened "This [Muslim resentment] is a time-bomb," who added, "It might not explode now but in 10 years it will be a huge problem."
 
 
Since 2011, as yet unknown firebrands have burned 15 makeshift mosques. Also, three persons were taken to hospital after arsonists burned a café used as a prayer center. Following the May 2011 arson of a makeshift mosque in Kallithea, an Athens neighborhood, Greece’s parliament moved to build a mosque at taxpayer expense. Fearing retaliation by Muslims for the series of arsons, 198 out of the 300 total legislators of all political persuasions voted in favor of the measure. Since then, the project has faced numerous delays, largely because no construction company was willing to take on the controversial job.
 
Diplomatic manoeuvres by Turkey 
 
The controversy has now jumped international borders. Local Muslims appealed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pressure the Greek government. In January of this year, Prime Minister Erdogan told Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras that Turkey is willing to fund the construction of a mosque in Athens. Besides, the Turkish leader requested that Muslims living in Greece should be allowed to appoint their own religious leader (Mufti) rather than accept those traditionally selected by the Greek government. Erdogan threw gasoline on the fire when he suggested that he would allow the re-opening of an Orthodox Christian seminary in Turkey in exchange for re-opening two former mosques in Athens that date to the Ottoman era.
 
Modern Turkey, which has long had a strained relationship with Greece - with which it shares a militarized border in Thrace - has been notable in the past for inflammatory statements by its rulers about immigration to Greece. For example, Halil Turgut Özal - who served as president and prime minister of Turkey - once said, "We do not need to make war with Greece. We just need to send them a few million illegal immigrants from Turkey and finish with them."
 
Greeks who can recall the genocide of Christian Armenians and Greeks by the Ottomans, and other pogroms carried during the subsequent and supposedly secular government later on, are outraged. During the Second World War, an elderly Orthodox priest was murdered in Izmir (formerly Smyrna) by Turkish nationalists who strangled him and hung his body from the icon screen in his church. His son, who was also a priest, managed to escape with his family by slipping secretly out of the country. Later, in the mid-1950s, Turkish nationalists rioted in the Phanariot Christian quarter of Istanbul, murdering Christians and destroying their businesses. In more recent years, Turkish Islamic nationalists have murdered several Christian pastors.
 
Muslims in Greece, however, appear gratified by Turkey’s intervention. For example, according to the Anadolu Turkish news agency, Mazen Rassas of the Muslim Association of Greece said of Erdogan" His offer [to pay for the mosque] has made us utterly pleased." The group is now demanding the Greece should construct Muslim cemeteries. "Apart from a mosque, there is a more important issue of a Muslim grave yard," said the Palestinian Rassas. The spokesman said that his group, while it has been able to find places of worship, cannot find adequate places for burial.
 
The Golden Dawn party said in a statement that it will “fight until the very end” and block the planned mosque, despite the government’s recent acceptance of a tender. "There is money to build a mosque but there is no money for Greeks to live with dignity," the party stated.  Golden Dawn now holds one third of the seats in the Greek parliament. Its membership and influence continues to grow.
 
Pleas by Orthodox Christians
 
The Rt. Rev. Bishop Seraphim of Votanikos, where the tax-funded mosque is planned, has encouraged Orthodox Christian faithful to file a motion with the Council of State (the highest court jurisdiction in Greece) to bar the project. Speaking to a local newspaper, the bishop summed up the sentiments of many Greeks: "I want to emphasize that Athens is the only European capital that went through four centuries of slavery under Islam, and managed to free itself just 200 years ago by spilling rivers of blood. Building a mosque would offend the martyrs who freed us." In another interview, Bishop Seraphim acknowledged "We are not a multicultural country."
 
(Greek Orthodox nun protesting against mosque)
 
In recent days, Turkey’s deputy premier, Bülent Arinç, called for turning the Hagia Sophia – which is now a museum but what was once the largest church in the Christian world – into a mosque. The ‘Holy Wisdom’ church was dedicated in 537 and was once the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople. When the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 to Muslim Ottoman armies, the cathedral was thereafter used as a mosque until 1935. It was at that time that Turkey’s modernizing dictator, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned it into a museum. Expressing his country's strong disapproval, the Greek foreign minister released a statement of protest: “Recurrent statements made by high ranking Turkish officials about converting Byzantine Christian churches into mosques are offending the religious feeling of millions of Christians.”
 
For its part, the Erdogan government retorted that Turkey has “nothing to learn” from Greece about religious tolerance. “Unfavorable treatment of Ottoman-era cultural artifacts and places of worship by Greece is well known by all,” the Turkish government declared in a statement. Of Turkey’s 80 million people, 99.8% of them are Muslim.
 
In March 2013, a former mosque in Thessaloniki was opened for a group of Muslim students from a madrassah – a school for the study of the Koran. For the first time since 1923, Muslim prayers were heard in the building that had been built in 1902 as a mosque in the second-largest city of Greece. Since that time, the building was used successively as a museum and exhibition hall. Current Thessaloniki mayor Giannis Boutaris, the scion of a wealthy family of vintners and a former communist, invited the Muslim worshippers who came from Komitini. Boutaris is now a member of DRAS, a minority party of a libertarian bent. Of the event, Turkey’s emissary to Greece, Kerim Uras, said “A positive step has been taken in the right direction. We’re expecting the rest to come. I hope Athens will also be a place where Muslims may pray.” 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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