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Greece: Taxpayer-Funded Mosque Planned in Athens

by Soeren Kern

….Athens—like many other European cities—has also experienced spontaneous violence involving Muslim immigrants. In May 2009, for example, more than 1,000 Muslims chanting “Allah is the Greatest” clashed with police in downtown Athens after a police officer was accused of stepping on a Koran during a police check at a Syrian-owned coffee shop.

Nearly 50 protesters were arrested during the uprising, while seven Muslim immigrants and seven policemen were hospitalized. More than 70 cars were torched and around a dozen businesses were destroyed in the clashes.

“This [Muslim resentment] is a time-bomb,” Naim El-Ghandour, the chairman of the Muslim Association of Greece, said at the time in an interview with the French news agency AFP. “It might not explode now but in 10 years it will be a huge problem.”

Since then, at least 15 makeshift mosques have been burned in attacks by unknown arsonists. In one case, at least three people in Athens were hospitalized after arsonists set fire to a coffee shop used as a Muslim prayer center for immigrants. In May 2011, arsonists set fire to a makeshift mosque in the Kallithea district of Athens causing damage but no injuries.

Fearing the Muslim-related tensions could spiral out of control, the Greek Parliament voted in September 2011to move ahead with the plan to build a taxpayer-funded mosque; the measure was supported by 198 out of 300 deputies from the left, right and center.

Despite the vote in parliament, the mosque project has faced repeated delays, in part because the government could not find any construction companies willing to build the mosque due to public opposition.

“It is a very big tragedy for us Muslims that there is no mosque here,” according to Syed Mohammad Jamil of the Pakistan-Hellenic Society. “Greece produced democracy and civilization and the respect of religion, but they don’t respect our Muslims to provide us with a regular, legal mosque.”

Frustrated by the lack of action, Muslims in Athens recently enlisted the support of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an effort to increase the pressure on the Greek government.

In January 2013, Erdogan told his Greek counterpart Antonis Samaras that Turkey would be willing to pay for the construction of a mosque in Athens. Erdogan also wants Muslims in Greece to be able to elect their own Mufti (religious leader), who is currently chosen by the Greek government.

Erdogan sparked another feud in October by suggesting that Greece should re-open two Ottoman-era mosques in Athens in return for the re-opening of an Orthodox clergy school in Turkey.

Erdogan’s moves have angered many Greeks, who feel a mosque would represent a continuing Turkish presence in the country. But Muslims in Greece have been elated by Erdogan’s support.

“We are very grateful to Mr. Prime Minister,” Mazen Rassas, of the Muslim Association of Greece, told the Anadolu Turkish news agency. “His offer [to pay for the mosque] has made us utterly pleased.” Rassas now wants Erdogan to pressure Greece to build Muslim cemeteries.

“Apart from a mosque, there is a more important issue of a Muslim grave yard,” Rassas, of Palestinian origin, said. “We could always find a place to pray but we can’t find anywhere to bury our dead.”

Although the Greek government has finally managed to award a tender, the mosque project may be subject to further delays.

Golden Dawn has said it will “fight until the bitter end” to block the mosque plan. “There is money to build a mosque but there is no money for Greeks to live with dignity,” Golden Dawn, the third most popular party in Greece, said in a statement.

Protests have also been gathering steam outside the planned site in Votanikos, where residents— led by a local Greek Orthodox bishop named Seraphim—have filed a motion against plans to build the mosque with the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Greece.

In an interview with the Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, Seraphim said: “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,” Seraphim said in a separate interview with the BBC. “We are not a multicultural country.”

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