Athens' first official mosque permitted to reopen for Christmas

By Helena Smith

Christmas has been greeted with enthusiasm by Muslim worshippers in Athens after the modern Greek capital’s first official mosque – forced to close only days after its inauguration in November – was told it could reopen for the holiday.

Relaxation of a national lockdown to enable Greek Orthodox faithful to attend mass on Christmas Day means the mosque will also be able to operate.

Giorgos Kalantzis, the secretary general at the ministry of education and religious affairs, told the Guardian: “We’ve decided, without discrimination, that every place of worship can conduct services and prayers as long as congregations are limited to 25 people.”

Few religious institutions have endured such tumultuous birth pangs, or inauspicious beginnings, as the new Athens mosque.

Demands for a Muslim house of prayer date back almost 200 years following the withdrawal of Ottoman forces from the city and the early days of the newly independent Greek state.

Before coronavirus came protest rallies and denunciations from the powerful Greek Orthodox church; the angry cries of nationalists who still associate Islam with foreign occupation; failed legislation to allow a mosque at all, and, when it eventually passed, years of court delays and abortive attempts to find a construction company brave enough to build it.

Athen’s first official mosque.
Athen’s first official mosque. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

“When we finally opened in early November it was for five days and just one Friday prayers,” lamented the mosque’s government-appointed imam, Mohammed Sissi Zaki. “After the lockdown this is a big, big blessing.”

Since its abrupt closure, the Moroccan-born Zaki has been among the few who have visited the state-funded mosque, built on a former naval base in an industrial zone off the Iera Odos, or Sacred Way.

Every day, five times a day, he has conducted prayers in its cavernous blue-carpeted chamber. The significance of that act is never lost on him.

“It is with great happiness, satisfaction and relief that we can say we are here at all,” said the 55-year-old imam, the sun filtering through the mosque’s windows.

Human rights campaigners agree. Although hidden from public view, minaret-less and under permanent police guard, the building, they say, does more than rectify a religious vacuum that has existed since Greeks expelled the Ottoman from Athens in 1833.

“It’s not only about human rights and the religious freedoms of thousands of Muslims,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, who formerly headed the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. “It’s about re-thinking and rediscovering Greek identity in all its colour and complexity, which includes 400 years of Ottoman rule.”

Greeks had long had “an issue with Islam” because they equated it with the perceived ruthlessness of Ottoman Turkish occupation. “There were always mosques in Athens but after independence we chose to erase them from our memory,” added Christopoulos, a professor of political science and history at Panteion University.

“We have a traditionally anti-Islamic perception of identity which has nothing to do with classic European Islamophobia but anti-Turkish sentiment, and that has fed into the story of the mosque.”

There are believed to be around 250,000 Muslims living in Athens. The community, comprised mostly of Pakistanis, Syrians, Afghans and Bangladeshis, was far bigger before Greece’s financial crisis forced many to move on.

Imam Zaki says the mosque is large enough for 350 male worshippers and 70 women in an adjacent chamber. “In the summer more can congregate outside,” he enthused pointing to the courtyard surrounded by newly planted gardens and a fountain decked plaza.

Previously Zaki had volunteered at one of the many makeshift mosques that had mushroomed, mostly in basement flats, in the absence of an official Muslim place of worship.

The centre-right government has now warned they will be closed if they fail to obtain permits. “Only 10 of the 70 currently operating in Athens have licences,” said Kalatzis. “It poses a security risk.”

In the past, police – egged on by supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn – would raid underground mosques. Today, Zaki welcomes the police presence. The words “stop Islam” remain carved in the cement sidewalk outside the steel gates leading to the site, a reminder of the hostility towards the mosque.

“We’re the only country in Europe to construct and operate a mosque with public funds and I think that sends a message,” said Kalantzis. “Greeks never had a problem with Islam itself but with the way the Turks used it to attack and extinguish us.”

Authorities hope by overseeing the mosque’s operation, and having Muslims sit on its board, radicals will be kept at bay. But controversy is already mounting within the community itself.

“We spent decades campaigning for this and what do we get? A place of worship that doesn’t even have a minaret,” snapped Naim el Ghandour, an Egyptian businessman who heads the Muslim Association of Greece. “We don’t want to pray in a square box that looks like a warehouse. We’ll only be happy when we pray in a place that looks like a mosque.”