Hundreds of Muslims marched through Athens on Thursday, protesting what they said was the destruction of a Quran by a Greek policeman. Naim Elgandour, the president of the Muslim Union of Greece, said that during police checks at a Syrian-owned coffee shop, a police officer took a customer’s Quran, tore it up, and threw it on the floor before stomping on it. In response, about one thousand Muslim migrants – mostly from Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, marched to central Omonia Square, where some had smashed shop windows and windows of about five course. Athens police said that an internal investigation would be launched in the Quran incident, but a name nor charges against the accused officer have not been given.
The 2012 Olympic Games in London will coincide with the month of Ramadan, and therein disadvantage fasting Muslim athletes, says this article in Islam Pluriel. Approximately one quarter of the 11 099 athletes in the 2004 Games in Athens came from Muslim-majority countries. Massoud Shadjareh, president of the Islam Association of Human Rights based in London stated that the games would not have been organized during Christmas celebrations, so to have them during Ramadan demonstrates a lack of sensitivity.
By Andrew Burroughs Plans for the first mosque in Athens since Turkish rule under the Ottoman empire have been given the go-ahead by the Greek parliament. Over recent years immigration has brought hundreds of thousands of Muslims to the Greek capital. But while freedom of worship is guaranteed by Greece’s constitution as a member of the European Union, proposals for a new mosque have proved controversial in a country whose population is 96% Greek Orthodox. There are mosques dating from Ottoman times in the old part of Athens known as Plaka. The Fethiye or victory mosque dates back to 1458. But today these buildings are for tourists not for Muslim prayers. One is now a museum of Greek folk art. Athens is the only EU capital without a purpose-built place of worship for its Muslim population. The city’s 200,000 or so Muslims have been meeting in disused basements and whatever space the community can find. Technically these buildings lack proper legal permission to function as places of worship, though the city authorities, aware of the problem, have allowed meetings to continue while a solution is sought. Demonstrations In the run-up to the Olympics, and under pressure to portray Greece as internationalist and conciliatory, the then socialist government chose a site for a Saudi-sponsored mosque and Islamic centre east of Athens to be visible from the international airport. That provoked demonstrations by nearby residents of the staunchly conservative town of Peannia. Today there’s a small Greek Orthodox chapel on site, built to commemorate the protests which thwarted the mosque proposal. On special occasions a bell is rung, and on the hilltop a cross now defiantly looks towards the airport. “We are Orthodox Christians here,” says Angelo Kouias, a Peannia resident, involved in the protests. “We believe that when you arrive at the frontier of Greece it would be better to see a church to symbolise our country rather than a mosque.” “We don’t want another Kosovo here close to Athens,” says Dr Athanasius Papagiorgiou, a surgeon and president of the group which opposed the plan, the religiously conservative Association of St John. “Kosovo used to be a centre for the orthodox faith, and today it’s nothing.” Lost privilege Professor George Moustakis represents a different face of orthodoxy – a campaigner for interfaith understanding who joined a petition in favour of a mosque 17 years ago. “I’ve always opposed the connection of church and state here in Greece, which has meant the church took the decision about other denominations and other faiths and their buildings for worship,” he says. “Parliament has now voted and the church lost that privilege. So there is no problem about the mosque, the government supports it, so does the Orthodox Church.” With the church veto gone and support from the current centre-right government, Naim El Ghandour – who in daily life imports high fashion fabric designs – is the man coordinating plans for a new mosque to be built in the north of Athens. “The Muslims of Athens are Greek tax-payers and we have a right to pray in a respectful building,” he says “We’re asking the government for financial help. We’re not looking for foreign sponsors, this will be a Greek mosque for Greek Muslims.” The saga of the Athens mosque finds echoes elsewhere in Europe. The city of Grenada in Spain has just witnessed the opening of its first new mosque since the 15th Century when the Spanish re-conquered the Iberian peninsula from the Moorish Islamic rulers who built the historic mosques and palaces of Andalusia. The new mosque opened for worship only after two decades of objections from the local authorities on planning grounds. And in Italy a mosque planned for seven years in Colle di Val d’Elsa in a picturesque corner of Tuscany has divided the local community. There the local authority supports the need for a mosque but there have been objections from residents. It is a scenario likely to be repeated around the EU as the need for immigrant labour draws into the community those of a different faith, who then naturally wish to take up their equal right to a place of worship.
With Muslim immigration to Greece soaring, Athens is having to learn how to assimilate its minorities, with their different cultures, religions and traditions. With almost 99% of the population Greek Orthodox Christians, Greece may seem like an unlikely destination for immigrant Muslims. Its 11% unemployment rate ranks near the highest among European Union countries and it is one of the less developed member states. Nevertheless, some 200,000 Muslims, representing a quarter of all immigrants in Greece, now live in the capital Athens alone, up from 5000 in the early 1990s. The first wave came mostly from neighbouring countries such as Albania, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the governments it supported in Eastern European states. The second wave arrived after 1995 and included Muslims from farther abroad – the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. From a geographic point of view, their arrival in Greece makes sense as the country straddles Asia and the West and represents Europe’s eastern gateway. It is the only EU country in the Balkans. And its seas bordering Turkey make for a porous border. Cheaper destination Greece is also the cheapest point of entry for many immigrants. Ali, 21, paid an illegal trafficking network _ 3000 to smuggle him last year from Iraq to Greece – half of what it would have cost him to fulfil his aim of entering Germany. Ali, who declined to give his last name, makes about _ 30 a day in construction jobs, when he can find them. More often than not, he cannot, he says, because supply outstrips demand, making it difficult to send enough money home to support his five siblings and mother. His father was killed in 2004 by an explosion. However, immigrants in Greece, as elsewhere in Europe, are finding themselves a vital component to the work force, taking low-wage jobs – mostly in construction, agriculture and domestic help – that many Greeks decline. And yet this should not be understood to mean that Greece welcomes their presence, said Nassos Theodoridis, director of Antigone, a human rights group. “There has been a great deal of resistance to incorporating immigrants into Greek society,” Theodoridis told Aljazeera.net. Prohibitive laws Laws in Greece make it difficult for minorities and even minority children born in Greece to obtain equal status. And work permits remain elusive due to high costs, bureaucracy and ambiguities in the law. A study by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia found that the presence of people from minority groups created higher insecurity in Greece than in any other European Union country. Political gestures of goodwill towards minorities are often met with resistance. The most recent proof of this came in early May when Socialist party leader George Papandreou’s decision to nominate a Greek Muslim lawyer for prefecture in northern Greece sparked an outcry. Political rivals in turn feed on the “traitorous blunders” of their opponents, so that the public and politicians reinforce xenophobic tendencies among each other, Theodoridis says. Alexandros Zavos, chairman of the government backed Hellenic Migration Policy Institute (IMEPO), pointed out that the government is designing a programme that will bring political parties, unions and the influential Greek Orthodox Church together to advance relations between Greeks and immigrants and produce a harmonious multi-cultural and multi-religious society. He said the government’s response to immigration so far was not one of neglect and resistance. Rather, he said, immigration is a new phenomenon in Greece. Inter-community relations Munir Abdelrasoul, an imam from Sudan who has lived in Greece for 30 years and speaks fluent Greek, said relations between mostly immigrant Muslims and mostly Christian natives in Greece are good. And political attitudes seem to enhance that sentiment: Greece has maintained good relations with most Arab countries, while many Greeks are staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause. But Abdelrasoul said those feelings of goodwill are being challenged by the absence of a mosque in Athens – making it the only European capital without one. The Greek government backed a plan to build an Athens mosque in 2000. But a change in government and opposition from locals and church officials saw to it that the proposal never materialised. While officials continue to make statements that support the building of a mosque, little has been done to actually build it. The ministry of national education and religious affairs “has the right to give all the necessary permits for religious places of worship”, said the ministry’s press officer Charidimos Caloudis. But Marietta Giannakou, the minister involved, declined to comment when asked to provide a time frame as to when the government would formally approve construction and what the cause for delay has been. Political risk Some analysts say it is politically risky to push for the construction of a mosque. Greeks were brutally oppressed during 400 years of Ottoman rule and many have come to associate Islam with that painful period of their history. “Some Greeks equate Turkish rule with Islam,” said Marios Begzos, professor of comparative philosophy of religion at the University of Athens. “But Greeks and the Greek government must learn to distinguish between Turks and Muslims.” To some extent they have. Some 150 mosques exist in Greece, mainly in the northern region of Thrace, where an estimated 150,000 Greek Muslims live, and the Orthodox Church has donated 300,000 square feet worth an estimated $20 million in west Athens for the purpose of a Muslim cemetery. But the symbolic void of a mosque in the capital threatens to overshadow these gestures. The absence has drawn international attention. Leading up to the 2004 Olympic Games there was talk in the international Muslim community of boycotting the games. And the Saudi government has pushed strongly to fund the construction of a mosque and cultural centre. Mosque location The construction of the cultural centre raised concern among the Greek community, given the Saudi government’s reputation for promoting a strict interpretation of Islam. The Greek government has since promised to fund and oversee construction of the mosque, sans the cultural centre. Location is said to be the last main sticking point. A spot near the airport was once being considered but few Muslims live there. There was talk of renovating a mosque leftover from Turkish rule in the shadow of the Acropolis that has since been turned into a folk art museum. But it is very small – not suitable for a Friday prayer – and a symbol of oppression to many Greeks. Land adjacent to where the cemetery will be constructed is now said to be the most likely candidate. In the meantime Muslims in Athens pray at 20 non-official prayer centres around the capital, most of which can hold no more than a few dozen people. Abdelrasoul said Muslims in Greece are likely to remain patient on the issue. “Good relations between Muslim and Greeks are ancient. But I hope officials will come to understand that when people feel respected and accepted in a society they feel more satisfied and inclined to honour that society.”