It took a century to open a mosque in Athens. Then came the pandemic

The mosque that took more than a century to open, surviving legal, political and financial challenges, has closed in less than a week, a temporary victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

>> Niki KitsantonisThe New York Times
Published : 15 Nov 2020, 04:23 AM
Updated : 15 Nov 2020, 04:23 AM

Athens, the Greek capital, had not had a dedicated, purpose-built Muslim place of worship since the expulsion of Ottoman forces in 1833, a gap that officials have long sought to fill. The first act of Parliament aimed at opening a mosque came in 1890, an effort that intensified in recent decades as the Muslim community has grown, now praying in dozens of unpermitted makeshift venues like basements, garages and parking lots.

In the face of objections from the powerful Orthodox Church and from nationalists who associate Islam with foreign occupation, plans repeatedly came to nothing over the years, leaving Athens as virtually the only European Union capital without a purpose-built place of worship for Muslims.

But in 2006 Parliament approved construction of a fully state-funded, state-run mosque in Athens — the only such arrangement in the European Union, Greek officials say. The opening, initially scheduled for 2010, finally arrived early this month after the project surmounted a mountain of red tape and legal challenges.

With the coronavirus spiking, though, restrictions immediately limited a building designed for around 350 worshippers to only 13 at a time. Then, the day after the mosque’s first Friday Prayer, Greece returned to a national lockdown, forcing it to shut completely for now.

“My feelings are split in two,” Mohammed Zaki, the mosque’s 55-year-old imam, said. “On the one hand I feel incredible relief and happiness; finally we have a mosque we can pray in.”

But his joy, he said, was tempered both by the COVID-related restrictions and the fact that dozens of makeshift mosques in the capital were now likely to close.

“I hurt for those who come to pray and are turned away,” he added.

Some Muslims say the new mosque signals a welcome shift in Greek attitudes.

Muhammad Shabir Dhama, a 60-year-old restaurant owner from Pakistan, was positively beaming when interviewed on the mosque’s grounds on the day the lockdown was announced.

“I have no words,” he said, wearing prayer robes, a face mask and protective shoe coverings. “I’d like to say a big thank-you to the Greek government and to everyone who helped make this happen.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company