NEWS

Muslim prayer spaces locked down one after the other

Al-Malik in Alkamenou st., will be the fifth consecutive ‘mosque’ to shut down following up orders by the state attorney. Muslims are waiting for 37 years the mosque the Greek polity has promised.

In 2011, the Parliament voted for an amendment that would give the ‘green light’ to construct a mosque in Votanikos, Athens. As of yet, there has been no assigned contractor!

‘Presumably in order to gain the far-right vote, the government wants to show deeds. That is why they are targeting us’, the President of the Muslim Association of Greece meaningfuly notes.

By Ntina Daskalopoulou

Pictures by Marios Lolos

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“Masid Al-Malik has to shut down. This semi-basement space in Alkamenous street will be the fifth space of Muslims to shut down unless something changes in the next few hours.

There have been another four lockdowns – all of them in the area of Agios Panteleimon in the past few days. The police station seals the windows with wax. Muslims cannot practice there anymore. The police has called the owners of Al-Malik to shut it down before the 20th this month. The tenants have gained some time to provide the relevant documents to the prosecutor in order to keep the space operating, but the deadline is today. The court servant will be called to decide whether Al-Malik is a mosque without operational permit or a multi-use space.

‘It does not qualify as a mosque. We pray here, but we don’t only do that’, we are told by the Muslims in the neighborhood who receive us with orange juice and treats. ‘For us it is the only space of social interaction’.

An Athenian Muslim woman

Maria (her full details are in the newspaper’s disposal), is not the muslim you are used to. Not only because she does not wear a headscarf but also because she is not a member of the minority. She was born and raised in Athens, converted to Islam ten years ago, when she met and fell in love with her current husband.

‘In Athens we don’t have a recognized mosque. This means that my five year old daughter must go down in basements with her father to pray and that myself I cannot go to most of these places because they don’t have a womens’ praying area. Yet, let’s say that this is not such a big problem since a Muslim can pray anywhere. The biggest issue is that our children grow up with a sense of being second-class citizens and that their religion is unwanted here. Even my headscarf I cannot wear with ease in Athens: my parents freak out, and I am afraid: far-right supporters have often assaulted women violently pulling their headscards off their heads’.

Knatour Kar Nurula is the Imam of the small masjid that was sealed off a few days ago in Panas st. He waits for me along with 40 believers in the narrow cul-de-sac. ‘We need the space not only to pray but also to interact with eac other. We don’t go to restaurants or cafes’, he tells us. ‘Mass prayer is necessary on Fridays. But here we also do Greek language courses, and meet up. Please, ask the neighbors whether we’ve ever annoyed them or caused any problems’.

It is Sunday afternoon and those neighbors who are out on their balconies looking at the whole gathering are completely relaxed. ‘We have no problem with them’, mr. Giorgos will tell us. ‘They come, pray and leave. I don’t understand why yet another painful frontier should open. When you insult people’s relationship to god, then nothing good comes out of that’. The three pumped-up, black-clothed men sitting around in the corner they think otherwise. But they don’t dare approach and express their views.

This is precisely the question we asked the president of the Muslim Association of Greece: Why are the lockdowns taking place now? ‘We tried all these years, the Muslims of Greece, to abstain from getting involved with the nitty-gritty of politics’, Naim Al-Kantur tells us.

‘They tried to burn us’

‘…and we managed it: no extremist elements managed to proliferate here, while in other countries this is actually the case. Our relations are absolutely peaceful with everyone, just as our religion prescribes. We never responded to the far-right challenges. They constantly attacked us and in once case, in Attica in 2011, they got to the point of trying to burn us alive. Presumably, the government now wants to win the far-right vote, and wants to demonstrate that it proceeds to actions. This is why they are targetting us.’

At this point in time, there are over one hundred ‘makeshift’ mosques: Underground basements but also some operating as cultural associations. And all this because the Greek government always stood ambivalent vis-à-vis the Muslim citizens’ demand for a mosque. Greek democracy, during the last few years, has also been helpless in confronting the far-right threats. For thirty-seven consecutive years Greek governments have been promising to build a mosque: already since 1976 the Arab ambassadors had posed the demand […]

Likewise, in 1983 the state conceded some land in Marousi. Four years later, it decides that the area is not appropriate. In 1988, Alimos becomes another candidate area. The local society reacts and the plan is put on hold. Four years later, an area in Koropi is considered. In 1998 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declares that the mosque will not be built there but in Paiania.

In 2006, Ntora Mpakogianni suggested that the old mosque in Monastiraki should operate anew, causing a storm of reactions. In September 2011 the parliament votes for an amendment that permanently gave the ‘green light’ to proceed to building a mosque in an area of 17 acres in Votanikos. In repeated contractors biddings there has been no contractor to take up the project signed by architects A. Tompazis, N. Athanasiadis and P. Mitoudis. The last – fourth – bidding contest was proclaimed to be unfruitful in 24 October, despite the decision made by the Ministry of Infrastructure to allow the participation of big construction companies.

During a time of crisis for the constructions sector what is it that discourages the construction companies from participating in a project whose budget reaches 946.000 euros? ‘I feel that they are afraid of being stigmatized’, G. Gagalis, the president of the PanHellenic Union of Public Infrastructure contractors, said to ‘Kathimerini’ a few days ago. ‘Something analogous, that is, with what happens in the case of demolishing illegal housing’.

The..Sealing Wax

While the country is internationally exposed for not respecting the right to religious freedom or the right to difference, while it is being constantly challenged by Turkey and Erdogan specifically on the issue of the mosque, in the streets of Athens it proceeds with locking down one after the other all the makeshift mosques. The images of sealing wax are all over the global news.

‘It may be that the ‘masterminds’ of Golden Dawn are in prison, its body however, is still out on the streets.’, Mohamed will tell us. He is Albanian and lives in our country for the last 22 years. ‘On the one hand, Greece opens up bidding contests for an offical, big mosque, on the other, it keeps shutting down all the small praying spaces. In the neighborhood we have no other problem than Golden Dawn. In France there is thousands of Mosques, in northern Europe the same, in the U.S the same. What is Greece fearing? When did we harm Greece? I think the government wants to appeal to the voters of Golden Dawn, that’s why they shut us down’.

‘Nobody has got permission to operate praying spaces, and nobody will’, Naim says. ‘Besides, none of these spacee operates exclusively as a praying space. I think there is another factor that helps explain the general offensive. Local elections are looming and they target the weakest ‘links’ – that is, not the Arabs’ mosques, but the ones here that assemble Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Afghans. Why no mosques in N. Kosmos, Kallithea, Goudi or Kalamaki have shuted down? All those that shut down are in A. Panteleimonas. Is it a coincidence?’

The spaces that were shut down, according to the President of the Muslim Association of Greece, are self-financed. The Imam of Al-Malik provides us with all the relevant documents: the contracts of ownership, the documents that prove the constitution of a not-for-profit organization that operates the space. With these documents in hand, they will meet with the prosecutor in order to avoid closure.

‘Immigrants are leaving Greece because they feel persecuted., Said tells us. He is a travel agent and during the last year he has been issuing one-way tickets. ‘They either go back to their countries or move on to north Europe –  those who have travel documents, that is; and, this is not down to the crisis only, but also because of the ambience of fear that prevails in Greece. It is not only people without ‘papers’ that leave the country, but also those who used to own companies, who paid taxes and so forth. This ambience has to revert. Athens can still  become a city of peaceful co-existence. We all lose from such a bleak situation’.

750 thousand Muslims

Only the Muslim Association of Greece numbers ten thousand members, while its Presidents estimates the number of Muslims in Greece to be 750 thousands. ‘We want to co-operate peacefully with the Greek authorities, and this is why we want a mosque in Votanikos. When this happens, many of the small mosques will close down’, Al-Kantur says. ‘But the solution cannot lie in indiscriminately shutting down all mosques and let people out in the street. Everything can be settled with calmness and dialogue with the communities’.

‘There are times when I want to leave Greece’, Maria says. ‘It’s ok not to have money, it’s ok to be under pressure because of the crisis. But not to be able to be myself? The only place where I can dress and act the way I want is Komotini. I would like my country to accept me for what I have consciously chosen to be: Greek citizen, Muslim in religion. And just like my daughter can go the church for Christmas unobstructed, she should be able to go also to the mosque for the Ramadan. Our religions preach love and peace, but we, the people, we mess things up’.

Translated from ‘Efsyn’ newspaper, 30 October 2013. Found online at: http://www.efsyn.gr/?p=140339

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