Men pray in Athens during a formal Greek Ministerial visit last month, the newly-established mosque is expected to officially open in September. Image Credit: AFP

In Athens, Greece, the first mosque is anticipated to open for Muslim worshipers in more than 180 years; since the establishment of the modern Greek state. 

For Muslims in Athens, the establishment of the new mosque has been a tumultuous battle. The city has experienced prolonged delays in the contentious creation of the first state-sponsored mosque which is presumed to begin formally functioning in September this year. 

Supervised by the Greek state, the $967,000 construction project is situated in the industrial area of Eleonas, near a refugee camp and has none of the ornate graces typical of an Islamic place of worship. Nevertheless, the community has worked respectfully in unison with the government for the creation of the mosque.

The new Athenian mosque is relatively small, with a 350-capacity and does not have a traditional minaret nor dome. Loudspeakers have also not been permitted to call worshipers for prayers.

The prayer space is not expected to meet the needs of the city’s vibrant Muslim communities comprised mainly of migrants from Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, the faithful have greeted the mosque’s creation with immense humble relief. 

The mosque’s Imam, Sidi Mohammed Zaki expressed his appreciation for the government and supporters of Greece’s multicultural diversity.

“We thank the Greek people for accepting us as Greek citizens and Muslims, and I thank the Greek state for helping us set up this (prayer) space.”

During a visit to the almost completed mosque last month, government Ministers recognised the importance of freedom of religious expression. 

“The right to religious freedom does not depend on how one ended up in our country. It’s like the right to education and health care…It is (a) non-negotiable human right,” affirmed Greece’s Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Costas Gavroglou.

The project first began in 2007 amid strong opposition from the influential Orthodox Church of Greece and the persistence of animosity towards its Muslim neighbour, Turkey. For centuries, Greece was once under occupation by the Ottoman Empire. Following the 1821 war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, mosques in Greece were repurposed or demolished. 

However, more recently hostility has emerged from far-right and religious groups. This has been a major hurdle for the Muslim community with numerous incidents of vandalism and graffiti that stalled the creation of the mosque. 

As a result, an estimated 250,000 Muslims, who observe their religion have had to create informal and unauthorised prayer spaces stretching across the city in basements and disused stores. These sites of worship may, therefore, be considered illegal throughout Athens and the surrounding area. 

Athens is the only European capital without an official mosque. Instead, the only sanctioned mosques in the country could be found towards the northern border region near Turkey where many Muslims live. Nonetheless, Muslims in Athens have persevered in spite of these challenges through formally lobbying to the Greek government and greater community.

Ashir Haidar, a representative of the Shia denomination of the Muslim community of Greece, expressed the upcoming mosque as “a dream come true”.

“It is a great gift from the Greek state to the Muslim community of Athens and it is a symbolic work that shows respect of the Greek state to the religion of Islam,” praised Ashir.