Immigrant organizations on Friday opened the first official Islamic prayer site to operate in Athens since the end of Ottoman rule more than 170 years ago. Government plans to build a mosque that would serve tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants living in the capital have stalled, and the downtown cultural center was funded by businessmen from Arab countries. "This is the first time in all the 35 years I've lived in Greece that we have a proper place to pray," said Naim El-Gandour, the Egyptian-born head of the Muslim Association of Greece. "It's hard for be to describe what's happening — I am overcome with emotion." Most Muslims in Athens currently use makeshift mosques for prayer, including sites prayer set up in basements, apartments, and converted coffee shops. For weddings, funerals and other religious ceremonies, they often travel more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) to the northeastern region of Thrace, which is home to a 120,000-strong Muslim minority which is mostly Turkish speaking. More than 1,000 mostly Arab immigrants gathered at the center for its official opening. El-Gandour said the 1,800 sq. meter (19,500 sq. foot) site had been converted from an old textile factory to become a cultural center that would also be used as a prayer site. He said he was not aware of the cost of the new facility, which included large refurbished prayer rooms, with flat-screen televisions and uniformed volunteer stewards. Men in traditional Islamic dress squatted beside immigrants in overalls to attend prayers. Representatives of Muslim organizations in Europe traveled to Athens to attend the ceremony. Also present were representatives of the Iranian and Saudi Arabian embassies in Athens, senior imams from Muslim countries, and a representative of Greece's Orthodox Church. "This is a very big day for us. This is a clean place where we can pray properly," said one teenager who identified himself only as Ibrahim. "We've been waiting for this for a very long time — since before I was born." Previous plans to create a mosque had been unpopular, through their association with centuries of rule by the Ottoman Empire. Some 97 percent of Greece's native-born population of 11 million is baptized Orthodox Christian. A proposal to build a mosque outside Athens before the 2004 Olympics was blocked because of objections by residents, and opposition from Greece's powerful Orthodox Church, which disagreed with the location and plans for funding to come from Saudi Arabia. But last year, the government promised to spend €15 million (US$20 million) for a new mosque in Athens by 2009. The Education and Religious Affairs Ministry will set up a committee to chose the head imam of that mosque, but has said individual communities will be allowed bring their own imams to the site. International human rights reports, including a 2005 report on religious freedom issued by the U.S. State Department, had previously criticized Greece's government for failing to create an official site for Muslims to pray in Athens.
Source: International Herald Tribune (English)