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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 13:19 GMT
Olympic city to build first mosque
Athens' skyline
Athens' first mosque has generated controversy

Athens is to have its first official mosque by the 2004 Olympics, the Greek government has announced.

The city is still the only capital city in the European Union (EU) without an official place of worship for Muslims, who make up over 100,000 of its inhabitants.

But Muslims in the city say the location of the mosque, 20 kilometres east of Athens in the suburb of Peania, will make it unusable for most of them.


We pray five times a day and we need a central mosque near to where we live

Community leader Ghulam Maula

Most of the city's Muslims - largely first-generation immigrants from Albania, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan - live in the central Omonia Square and its network of back streets, and in the port of Piraeus.

But the Greek Government has defended the decision to build the mosque in Peania.

Mixed response

Ghulam Maula, president of the Bangladeshi Community of Athens, said: "The new mosque will be too far out. We pray five times a day, and we need a central mosque near to where we live."

Unofficial mosque in Athens
Unofficial mosques may be shut down in future

Panayote Dimitras of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, an NGO, agrees: "This is not a solution. It takes two hours by public transport, and that's the only option for most Muslims in Athens."

But a spokesperson from the ruling Pasok party, Christos Papoutsis, said the location was "absolutely sufficient and satisfactory".

But some Muslims, at least officially, have welcomed the move.

Palestinian Ambassador Abdallah Abdallah said: "Everybody would like to have a mosque near their home, but it's not feasible at this time. The paperwork will be finished by the end of the year and we will try our utmost to have the mosque completed as soon as possible."

Crackdown fears

The project will be funded by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, responsible for the building of 200 Islamic centres and 1,500 mosques worldwide.


This is just for the Olympics, not for Muslims who live in Athens

SM Jamil, community leader

Plans for the mosque will include a library, information centre and recreation ground.

But observant Muslims in Athens already worship unofficially, renting a room or a basement in the city centre for prayer. Over a dozen unofficial mosques exist.

But Mr Dimitras said that the provision of an official mosque in 2004 may prompt a crackdown on unlicensed worship.

"Many Muslims in the city fear a backlash if they apply for a licence for their downtown mosques, but we're urging them to apply soon, before the official mosque is built."

'Showpiece'

There are other concerns that the visible presence of a large mosque, even outside the city centre, will cause anti-Muslim feelings in the city.

Ancient temple in Athens
The ancient city is home to 100,000 Muslims

There have also been charges that the mosque is an Olympic showpiece, with its location near the new international airport.

Syed Mohammed Jamil, president of the Pakistani Cultural Association, said: "This is just for the Olympics, not for Muslims who live in Athens. Nobody will go there."

The first calls for a mosque for Athens came from Arab embassies over 25 years ago, but stumbled on objections from the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Archbishop of Greece, Christodoulos, has since given his support to the building of a mosque, with the proviso that it is not in the city centre.

He is not alone in his reservations. In a street poll conducted last week, local newspaper Athens News reported a cool response to the idea of a downtown mosque.

Licensed mosques exist in Thrace and on the islands of Kos and Rhodes.

But Muslims remain a tiny minority in a country where 98% of the people claim to be members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

See also:

06 Jul 02 | Media reports
21 Nov 01 | Business
11 Oct 01 | Europe
11 Oct 01 | Americas
17 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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