Greece is ready to welcome the first government-funded mosque in the city of Athens. Located in the neighbourhood of Eleonas, the much-anticipated mosque is expected to open in 2019 and bring people out of unofficial worshipping facilities.
It has been more than a century since Muslims in Athens had a formal mosque to pray at.
Athens—the only European Union capital without an official mosque or Muslim cemetery—first had plans to build a mosque in 1890 but it wasn’t until 2013 that the parliament proposed a project.
However, after that plan fell through, due to several issues such as protests and reactions from religious leaders, parliament voted again in 2016 to relaunch the original project and start constructing the mosque.
There is currently just one mosque in Greece located in the northern border town of Thrace, near Turkey.
The new mosque will be in a former naval base in the neighbourhood of Eleonas, which lies close to Monastiraki square, the flea market neighbourhood in the old town of Athens, considered one of the most central and historically important places in the city.
The mosque is expected to open at the beginning of 2019.
Where did Muslims pray before?
Greece's 250,000 Muslims have been pushing the government to build a mosque for years. Currently, they pray at makeshift sites, basements or warehouses which have been targeted by racist attacks.
Greek authorities began legalising the unofficial mosques, which were formed by worshippers in response to the lack of official sites to pray and held no permits to operate. Three mosques were given permits in Athens and one in the city of Thebes in central Greece.
Lefteris Papagiannakis, Deputy Mayor of Immigrants and Refugees in Athens, claimed in 2017 that legalising the official sites would prevent ‘radicalisation’.
The government has vowed to legalise all mosques that meet requirements such as fire safety, public health, a maximum number of occupants etc., CNN Greece reports, and these will continue to operate even after the mosque at Eleonas opens its doors.
The 1,000-square-metre building won't have a minaret, will hold 350 people and will be gender segregated.
The revenue earned from any potential donations at the mosque will go to funding its operations, but if a profit exceeds operational needs, it will be up to the mosque’s board to decide if the donations will be accepted, LIFO free press newspaper reported.
The legal framework calls for the mosque to be managed by representatives of the state, assisted by two Muslim representatives. The imam is required to be a Greek citizen and a Sunni.
The two-floor mosque will cost around 887,000 euros ($1,007,966) and be open to the public all day long and for 24 hours during the month of Ramadan.
“The construction of the mosque is a public-funded venture,” said the Secretary General of Religions at the Hellenic Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs Georgios Kalatzis.
“It is the Greek public’s choice, and the message to the Muslim society is clear that Islam holds an equal position in our country,” he added.
Tsipras’ government has repeatedly pushed for the mosque’s construction, but his efforts split the ruling coalition. His right-wing partners voted against a bill to speed up construction back in 2017.
Residents of the western Eleonas neighbourhood opposed building a mosque and previously staged protests while far-right demonstrators camped out at the site for several weeks before being dispersed by the police.
Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens, the head of the Church of Greece, said there was no reason to rush the project, saying he was worried about the risk of militant indoctrination, but the Greek Orthodox church has not officially opposed it. In 2009, a site used by Muslim people to pray was set on fire leaving five people wounded. Over the years there have been several attacks at such unofficial sites.
Members and supporters of the extreme far-right party, Golden Dawn, have vowed to ramp up protests against it.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the Greek northeastern town of Komotini in 2017, where he met with thousands of people from the Muslim community. During his time in Athens, he met with Greek officials, including the prime minister, and opposed the idea of a mosque without a minaret.