The head of the Muslim Association of Greece says country’s secretary-general of religious affairs told him that the Greek government’s project to build a mosque in central Athens has been shelved indefinitely due to the country’s worsening financial crisis, in a meeting in Athens on Oct. 5.
“The Greek government will build the mosque in Athens sooner or later, but they cannot afford it now,” Secretary-General George Kalantzis said, “although the country’s Muslims’ continue to demand an imam and a mosque,” Naim El-Ghandour told the Hürriyet Daily News in a phone interview yesterday.
The Turkish diplomatic mission in Athens has expressed its support for the establishment of the mosque, saying they have been keeping an eye on the debate. “The construction of a mosque in Athens is a matter of human rights and freedom of worship,” a Turkish diplomat told the Daily News.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an officially asked then-Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to reopen the Fethiye Mosque in central Athens to use following its renovation on his last official visit to the Greek capital in May 2010.
Some 15 million euros previously earmarked for the project have inexplicably disappeared, El-Ghandour claimed. “This money had been set aside by the Greek Education Ministry in 2006, but now the money does not exist,” he said, adding that Kalantzis assured him that the mosque would be completed, but without making any comment as to when that might be.
“We have been assured by the ministry that they will build the mosque as planned, but we did not talk about timing. Everyone is holding their breath now because of the financial crisis,” said Anna Stamou, public relations spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Greece.
There are about 500,000 Muslims in Greece according to unofficial estimates, many of whom are undocumented migrants, as well as a community of over 100,000 Greek citizens of Turkish origin in the country’s northeastern region of Western Thrace. Athens remains the only European capital that has no mosque, but the creation of a sanctioned site for Muslim worship in Athens faces technical and religious problems.
“Muslims pray in more than 100 unofficial mosques in Athens,” Achilles Hekimoglou, a journalist from the Athens-based daily To Vima, told the Daily News. “There are more than 100 unofficial mosques in Athens and God knows what is preached there and by whom,” he said, adding that Greece had had an experience unique in the European Union regarding religious tolerance and coexistence in Thrace while linking this to good relations with the Arab world.
“Several laws call for the creation of a mosque in Athens, but political pressure or low prioritization on the agenda always freezes the plan,” Hekimoglou said.