The Greek Parliament has approved a controversial plan to build a taxpayer-funded mega-mosque in Athens.
The move comes amid thinly veiled threats of violence by thousands of Muslim residents of the city who have been pressuring the government to meet their demands for a mosque or face an uprising.
The September 7 vote to speed up construction of the first official mosque in Athens –- the only capital in the European Union without a state-funded mosque -– was supported by 198 out of 300 deputies from the left, right and center.
The mosque plan was included in an environment ministry bill regulating illegal construction. The plan calls for renovating an existing state building –- on a disused navy base- – in the industrial district of Votanikos near the center of Athens.
The plan commits the Greek government (by way of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs) to pay for the construction of a temporary mosque which will be built within the next six months. A larger 1,000 square meter (3,300 square feet) mosque with enough space for 500 worshippers at a time will be built in the same area by the end of 2012, at an estimated cost of around €16 million ($21 million).
The announcement comes as massively indebted Greece battles a growing recession that has left nearly one million Greeks out of work. Greece recently needed a €110 billion ($146 billion) three-year bail-out package to rescue the embattled economy from bankruptcy.
Officially, Greece has a Muslim population of around 500,000, mostly of Turkish origin. But in recent years, tens of thousands of Muslims have migrated to Greece from Africa, the Maghreb [North Africa], the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia.
Many of the estimated 200,000 Muslims living in Athens are illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan. It is now estimated that Greece - – which is the number one gateway for illegal immigration to Europe -– has an illegal immigrant population of around 2 million; this in a country where the total population is only 11 million.
Muslims in Greece pray in makeshift mosques in basement apartments, coffee shops, garages and old warehouses. In Athens alone, there are more than 100 unlicensed Muslim prayer sites in locations scattered across the city.
The Greek parliament's decision to approve the mosque is the latest chapter in a long-running story that dates back to the 1930s and centers over the question of whether Greece -– which is predominantly (97%) Christian Orthodox -– should officially cater to followers of Islam.
Athens has not had an official mosque since 1833, when the Ottomans evacuated the city after nearly 400 years of Turkish rule. Today the Turkish-dominated Muslim enclave of Thrace in north-eastern Greece is the only place where the Greek government officially supports Islamic sites and shrines.
In the run-up to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia offered to finance a mega-mosque in Paiania, a suburb about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of downtown Athens, near the international airport. But that plan was abandoned in the face of opposition from the Greek Orthodox Church.
In 2006, the government promised to spend €15 million ($20 million) for an Athens mosque by 2009. But that plan was also abandoned.
In 2007, Muslims took matters into their own hands. Using a donation of €2.5 million ($3.4 million) from a Saudi businessman, a small non-profit organization called the Greek-Arab Educational and Cultural Center transformed an old textile factory in Moschato, a southern suburb of Athens, into a 6,000 square meter (19,500 square foot) prayer site that can accommodate more than 2,000 worshippers at a time.
Nevertheless, plans for building a large state-sponsored mosque have been stalled as a result of bureaucratic wrangling as well as opposition from local politicians, especially those belonging to the center-right opposition party New Democracy and the populist LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally).
In recent months, however, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and his allies in parliament decided to push ahead with the mosque project after the Muslim Union of Greece -– a group that claims to represent all Muslims in Greece (and is also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood) -– staged a series of provocative mass public prayer sessions across Athens aimed to pressure the government into building a mosque.
In November 2010, for example, Muslims held open-air prayers in 15 locations across Athens. In one instance, over 1,000 Muslims took over the square in front of the main building of the University of Athens and held public prayers inside the portico on the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. More than 7,000 police officers were needed to keep the peace.
In August 2011, the Greek government gave Muslims permission to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan at the Olympic Stadium of Athens. The initiative was aimed at averting the chances of large crowds of Muslims gathering in downtown city squares.
In September 2011, however, Muslims celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, by holding open-air prayers in public squares near the city center. The Muslims were harassed by local residents who threw eggs and yogurt at them. Members of Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) a far-right nationalist group also threatened to physically remove the Muslims from the square; they were held back by riot police.
Analysts say the Papandreou government is pushing the mosque project out of fear that the Muslim rallies will become violent sooner rather than later.
Like many other European cities, Athens has experienced Muslim-related violence in recent years. In May 2009, for example, more than 1,000 Muslims clashed with police in downtown Athens after Muslims accused a police officer stepping on a Koran at a coffee shop during a police check.
Nearly 50 protesters were arrested during the uprising, while seven Muslim immigrants and seven policemen were hospitalized. More than 70 cars were torched and around a dozen businesses were destroyed in the clashes. A day earlier, an even larger crowd of around 1,500 Muslim immigrants rallied before the march degenerated into violence. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Since then, at least 15 makeshift mosques have been attacked by unknown arsonists. At one event, at least three people in Athens were hospitalized after arsonists set fire to a coffee shop used as a Muslim prayer center for immigrants. In May 2011, arsonists set fire to a makeshift mosque in the Kallithea district of Athens causing damage but no injuries.
Muslims say the violence proves they need an official mosque. But recent polls show that more than half of Greeks are opposed to the mosque plan and say their government should not be financing religious institutions.