ISLAM IN GREECE
Immigrant Muslims in Athens now have a 1,800m2 cultural centreto call their own. It's the first formal Islamic prayer site to operate in Athens since the end of Ottoman rule nearly 200 years ago
"IT'S light, bright and open," says Mohamed Abedlkader, enjoying the morning sunlight streaming in through the large picture windows of the new premises of the Arab Hellenic Centre for Culture and Civilisation in the southern Athens suburb of Moschato on June 26.
"We finally have a view of the sky," he adds, referring to the many makeshift mosques in Athens that are housed in underground apartments. "We finally have a place to gather and to pray that we can be proud of."
The Egyptian shopowner is the general director of the Arab Hellenic Centre for Culture and Civilisation, which was founded in 2001 by a group of Arab-born Muslims residing in Athens.
The centre's new three-storey 1,800m2 building, which faces southeast (towards Mecca, a city in western Saudi Arabia and the most sacred city in Islam), was opened on June 22. It boasts three carpeted prayer halls - a main hall for men, another for women and a third in the basement to contain a spillover crowd.
Even though it has no crescent-capped minarets - the familiar beacons to Muslims everywhere - the new brown-brick Moschato building hosts the city's first formal (though not official) mosque.
"Yes, this is a place for prayer, but it is not an official mosque," says Abedlkader, who is also one of the six imams at the Moschato centre. "We have been underground for so many years that this is a good place for us. We feel happy to sit here and to meet people here. Now we have a place to hold our meetings, our celebrations, our wedding parties. We have our own place."
But the centre's 2,000-person capacity cannot serve all of the city's Muslim immigrants who reportedly number more than 100,000. "We still need an official Athens mosque," adds Abedlkader, referring the Greek government's pledge to construct a mosque in Votanikos, on the outskirts of Athens. It is unclear when construction will begin.
The city's estimated 120,000 Muslim immigrants currently pray in underground apartments, garages, basement shops and other rented spaces, which members of this growing community have converted into makeshift mosques. There are more than 20 unofficial mosques scattered around the city. All of them are inconspicuous to passers-by.
The Moschato centre will also serve as a local immigrant Muslim community centre.
"We want to work on two levels," explains Abedlkader. "We want to work with Arabs because they need lessons about their religion and about the Greek language and Greek culture and because they have been living here for so many years but most of them do not know how to speak Greek. We also want to work with Greek people who want to know about the Arabic language and Arabs. This place is the perfect place for something like this because there is a lot of room."
Another future endeavour is to set up an in-house tourist agency so as to assist Muslims who wish to visit Mecca during the annual hajj. According to Abedlkader, they also want to open an Arab grocery on the ground floor so that the proceeds can be used to cover the centre's operating costs.
purchase of the building
"He had visited Athens several years ago and had prayed at one of the small, underground mosques in Athens," says Abedlkader. "He said that there should be a better place for Muslims to pray. This is why he did it."
According to Naim El-Gandour, the Egyptian-born head of the Muslim Association of Greece, the Saudi businessman's donation was part of the practice of zakat - a 2.5 percent tithe.
Both El-Gandour and Abedlkader say they do not know exactly how much the Saudi Arabian entrepreneur spent on the new centre, but stressed the importance of zakat in Islam. It is one of the religion's five pillars. El-Gandour, for instance, says he has been renting an Athens apartment that has been converted into a makeshift mosque for more than a decade.
July 2000 Parliament approves the government plan to build an Islamic centre and mosque in Peania. According to the plan, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia will finance the building of a mosque.
April 2003 Asked why construction hasn't begun in Peania, foreign ministry spokesman Panos Beglitis says the government has repeatedly called on Arab ambassadors to hurry up. Foreign Minister George Papandreou announces the government's pledge to build a mosque in time for the 2004 Olympic Games.
August 2003 Peania Mayor Paraskevas Papakostopoulos and the entire city council say they will fight the decision to build the mosque in their backyard. They appeal to the Council of State - Greece's highest administrative court.
September 2003 The Greek Orthodox Church comes out against the plan for a mosque in Peania, a suburb close to the Athens international airport. He calls on the government to change the location of the planned mosque because he is concerned that its dome and a minaret will send the wrong message about Greece - a Christian country - to visitors flying into the airport.
Foreign ministry spokesman Thanos Beglitis says the government has not and will not back down. "We remain firm on our position about the creation of the mosque in Peania."
Papandreou tells the London Guardian that the mosque will be built "in the spirit of the multicultural democratic Europe of which Greece is a part". He says that "migration has made the necessity for a mosque even greater because Athens' Muslim population has got that much bigger".
July 2004 Foreign ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos says the mosque project is in "a final stage now and only bureaucratic procedures are outstanding".
March 2006 In a report, EU's Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles expresses his dissatisfaction over the fact that Muslims in Athens are forced to "meet in secret in places unsuitable for prayer".
May 2006 As many as 10,000 local immigrant Muslims sign a petition demanding the creation of a mosque in Athens. Representatives of the Muslim Union of Greece meet with the education ministry's special secretary Athanasios Kyriazis to discuss the matter.
November 2006 After a six-hour heated debate, parliament approves a bill authorising the construction of a mosque in Votanikos, on the outskirts of the municipality of Athens. It will be financed entirely by the Greek government.
ATHENS NEWS , 29/06/2007, page: A15
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