Shah Malik ducks to enter a space that, from the street, looks like any other storefront in the central Omonia district. The neighborhood — with blocks of shops offering imported spices, halal meat or the milky tea popular in South Asia — is home to immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It’s time for evening prayers, and Malik, who came to Greece from Pakistan 14 years ago, heads to the local mosque. “It’s like not having a set place to live, when you don’t have a mosque for people to gather,” he said.
Masjid Usman, as a handwritten sign taped beside the entrance reads, is actually registered as a library. At least 200,000 Muslims live in Athens, but of the 120 prayer spaces in the city, only three have been able to navigate a complex maze of legal restrictions to register as mosques. The rest, like Masjid Usman, operate as libraries or cultural centers — instead of as nonprofit places of worship that enjoy a range of legal protections in Greece — and could one day be shut down if authorities decide to enforce the law.
But last month, Greek authorities announced a contract had been awarded for the construction of a state-funded, properly registered mosque — the first since the nation’s independence from the Ottoman Empire nearly 200 years ago. The mosque, expected to cost about $1 million, will have capacity for around 300 worshippers and is being built in a former naval repair yard in the Votanikos neighborhood of Athens, west of downtown.
“We have been hearing about this for decades,” said Malik, who serves as the makeshift mosque’s treasurer, “and if it happens, if it actually gets constructed, it would be great. It would allow us to feel like we can have an open presence here.”
Arab diplomats in Athens have been trying to get permission to build a mosque since the 1970s, and for more than a decade the Greek government has been trying to find space for such a facility, but anti-immigrant groups and the powerful Greek Orthodox Church have hampered the efforts…Not all bishops have been so critical. Bishop Bartholomew I of Constantinople has repeatedly called for a mosque to be built in Athens.
Still, the issue of a mosque has become a rallying point for xenophobic groups in the country such as Golden Dawn, a now-banned political party whose members tried to firebomb a Bangladeshi mosque in the city, stabbed to death a Pakistani immigrant and led several violent protests over the years against the Votanikos district mosque project. The new state-funded mosque will not meet all the needs of the large Muslim community in Athens. But, said Malik, it would be “an important step towards making us feel like we belong here.”
Source: Religious News Service (RNS)