SHAFAQNA- Athen’ s first official mosque since the establishment of the Greek modern state two centuries ago is likely to begin operating in September, about three years after its construction was approved by Parliament, Greek Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs Kostas Gavroglu said .
Kostas Gavroglou spoke on Friday during a visit to the nearly complete mosque on the outskirts of the Athens city centre, accompanied by representatives of the Muslim community. Its construction has been controversial, with some opposing a mosque in the Greek capital.
“It is particularly good that soon there will be the first prayer from the imam of the Athens mosque. We hope this will happen in September at the latest,” Gavroglou said.
“The Greek state has done anything possible to safeguard the right of all people to pray in sites of worship of their choice,” Gavroglu told media on Friday .
“Almost all parties in the Greek parliament voted in favour of its construction. Democracy spoke and her wish was respected,” he said, pointing to far-right extremists who objected the construction and vandalized the site recently.
The Greek minister Gavroglou noted the Athens mosque, unlike most in Europe, was a public and not a privately owned place of worship.
“It doesn’t belong to anyone, because it belongs to all of us and all of you,” he said. “Here, the owner is not an individual, nor a community, nor a society nor a foreign country.”
Construction of a mosque has been a constant request of Muslims living in the overwhelmingly Christian Orthodox Greece for decades, but conservative circles raised obstacles on multiple occasions in the past.
Supervised by the Greek state, the 350-capacity mosque, which has neither minaret nor dome, is situated in the industrial area of Eleonas, near a refugee camp.
But for the Muslims of Athens, it is the result of a long-fought battle — and the city’s first formal mosque in more than 180 years.
The near completion of the mosque has been greeted with relief by members of the capital’s Muslim community.
“I would like to start by thanking Allah that we finally have a mosque where we can pray, we can gather, we can talk about out matters,” said Zaki Mohamed, the mosque’s imam.
Ashir Haidar, a representative of the Shia Muslim community of Greece, described the upcoming opening as “a dream come true”, Aljazeera told.
“It is a great gift from the Greek state to the Muslim community of Athens and it is a symbolic work that shows respect of the Greek state to the religion of Islam,” he said.
Mohammad Irfan, who represents a Muslim community group in the nearby town of Megara, said appearance was not everything.
“It looks nothing like a mosque. But what is important is that there is a place for us to pray,” he told Reuters.
Although the construction has been completed, there are still pending minor technical issues for the safe operation of the mosque, members of its governing body explained.
Greek authorities said on Friday that Athens would open its first official mosque probably by September when the €850,000 euro ($967,000, Dh3.5 million) construction project is completed.
“We are in a pre-election period and (under Greek law) procedures for the hiring of civil servants needed for the mosque, have stopped,” Haider Asir explained speaking to Xinhua.
“It will take a little more time so that we are entirely ready for the launch of the mosque’s operation,” said Nelly Papachela, Vice Mayor of the Municipality of Athens.
“We are feeling very proud. This is a historical day… There are more than 250,000 Muslims living and working respectfully in Greece,” said Sayed Mohammad Jamil, president of the Greek-Pakistani Cultural Welfare Society, tribune reported.
Although there are mosques in other parts of Greece, the capital has not had a formal mosque since it drove out occupying Ottomans in 1833, and the few that are left have been repurposed.
Athens is the only European capital without an official mosque. Plans to build a mosque began in 1890 with an act of parliament, but all fell through, including one timed for the 2004 Olympics.
Stymied by red tape, a financial crisis, a predominantly Christian Orthodox population and opposition from the rise of the far right of the country, getting approval for the mosque took years, forcing Muslims to pray at makeshift sites dotted across the city, ranging from crowded basements or dark warehouses.
More than 200,000 Muslims from countries including Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and Bangladesh live in the Greek capital, according to Muslim groups. Greece has its own Muslim community which represent about two per cent of the population who live mainly in the north where they have their own mosques, gulfnews reported.
Efforts over the years to build a mosque in Athens sparked protests from fringe groups on the far right; a short distance from the mosque, graffiti scrawled on a wall read “Islam Out”.
Read more from Shafaqna: