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A Mosque and a Cemetery: Too Much to Ask?

Introducing the Greek Muslim Community.
By Naim El-Ghandour

In an ancient region called Thrace, North East of Greece, a Muslim community of about 120, 000 Muslims is based. Historically, the population of this city was exempted from applying the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne VI, 1923; a treaty which aimed at applying an obligatory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey following World War I. This Muslim minority is composed of three ethnic groups, in which the element of homogeneity is absent. More specifically, 50 percent of Thrace's Muslims are of Turkish origin, 35 percent are Pomaks [1], and 15 percent are Roma people [2]. Each of the aforementioned groups has its own language and traditions. They have their own muftis, imams, mosques, cemeteries, schools, etc. But they are all united, mainly, in their strong connections with Turkey, such as joining Turkish universities, migrating into Turkey for work, etc.
Besides the first Turkish Muslim group there is another group of Muslims in Greece which includes immigrants who had settled in Greece during the last 40 years coming mainly form Arab countries and partly from other Islamic ones. These Muslims are doing all kinds of jobs all over this European country, not only as low-profession workers who are estimated at 90 percent of the total immigrant percentage. Some of these immigrants have better opportunities and work in high-professions, so there are doctors, scientists, professors, entrepreneurs, businessmen, and importers.
The last smallest group of Muslims consists of the converted Greek Muslims who embraced Islam after studying it, or after getting married to Muslims whereby they had the chance to meet Muslims and interact with them. Those were the three Muslim groups living in Greece with different characteristics and cultures and are estimated at 830,000.

Muslim Associations in Greece

The Association of Muslims in Greece (AMG) was established in 2003. It is the organization that brings together all Muslims from all over Greece. It is located in Athens, where about 700.000 Muslims live. The Association of Muslims in Greece exerts efforts to defend the Muslims' rights in several fields, like having an official mosque and a Muslim graveyard, etc. Many Muslim citizens contribute to the AMG's efforts including permanent residents who pay taxes to the Hellenic State, the legal immigrants, the university students, and also the political refugees. Even Sunnis and Shiite are united under the umbrella of the AMG while having the same demands for an official Hellenic Mosque and a common Muslim cemetery.

The History of Greek Mosques

Surprisingly, there is no official mosque in Greece up to the moment. However, there are some unofficial mosques in Greece which totally depend on the private efforts of the Muslims there. The first mosque in Athens was built in 1985 by the Sudanese Dr. Munir Abdelrasul in Goudi, a neighborhood of Athens; the second in 1989 by myself, Naim El-Ghandour,at Piraeus district; the third in 1989 by the Egyptian Mohiy Eldin in the center of Athens; the fourth in 1993 by the Palestinian Mazen Rassas at Neos Kosmos in Athens. Many mosques were established then and Greece now has 67 Islamic places for worship in Athens only. These mosques attract all Muslims from both Arab and non-Arab backgrounds, like the Persians, Greeks, Albanians, Sub-Saharan Africans, and European Muslims. The Greek State did not raise any objection against the private efforts of Muslims in building mosques as there is no other place for them to practice their religion.

Financing Mosques in Greece

The fundraisers of the places for worship are the owners and Muslims who spend a lot of money to cover the rent and other expenses. At Friday prayers, Muslims usually give alms to the mosque. In fact, sometimes the charity money is enough to cover the mosques' expenses and sometimes it is not. All mosques in Athens are self-funded except for only one mosque which is funded from abroad since it belongs to the Federation of Islamic Organization in Europe (FIOE).

Efforts With the Governments

Few years ago, the Association of Muslims in Greece had many attempts to approach the government for the official mosque and the cemetery. Muslims communicated with the Ministry of Education and Religions and conducted several meetings regarding the needs of Muslims in Athens. Geek Muslims were mainly concerned with the following issues: how would a mosque in Athens operate harmoniously with all different nationalities and languages, and the demands of a mosque. Finally, the state greatly appreciated our proposal and we had a very satisfactory law that describes the Athens Mosque as a mosque built by the Greek state in cooperation with Greeks and EU funds. The government also stated that the mosque's imam should be certified by an authorized university, like Al Azhar, to be considered officially as a civil servant with a two-year contract.

A Far-Fetched Dream

Unfortunately, after all these efforts and achievements, the Minister of Education and Religions was deposed in a ministerial change. So the whole project was delayed due to lack of information, another ministerial change, and a national need for the money dedicated to the mosque. Muslims' claims are well known to the public, since they are always hosted in many TV and radio programs and ncluded in the coverage of all online and printed newspapers.

Muslims' Gathering Events

Feast Prayer at Olympic StadiumTwice a year on both Islamic `Eids, members of the Arab Muslim community gather in the Olympic stadium of Athens (OAKA) where they perform the `Eid prayers together, often headed by a famous imam from abroad. Greek Muslims of Pakistani origin also go to the SEF Stadium, another big Greek Stadium, due to the different languages, but once the Hellenic mosque is ready, Muslims from different backgrounds agree to meet there no matter which language will the majority adopt.

A Cemetery as Well

Muslims have been trying to achieve this goal since 2005. At that time, the former Archbishop Christodoulou announced that the Church of Greece donated a piece of land for Muslims to build their own cemetery on. The Association of Muslims in Greece got in contact with the Church, which is connected to the government, to proceed with this project. Many months followed, but the archbishop passed away, a new one was elected, and Muslims had to send new letters. The matter was no longer in the hands of the church but in the state's. Many meetings were held where Muslims reassured their desire to have the cemetery very soon. When they felt that there were no steps taken, they addressed the Minister of Internal Affairs Mr. Prokopis Pavlopoulos and asked to meet him as Muslims consider this a matter of human dignity.

And Muslims' efforts still go on…

Are you a Greek Muslim or a Muslim living there? What do you think of the Muslim status in Greece? How do you think Muslims can integrate into the Greek society while maintaining their Islamic identity?

[1] An indigenous population that initially lost its native tongue and subsequently espoused Islam during the Ottoman occupation. They are also said to be a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim population group native to some parts of Bulgaria, specifically southern Bulgaria, and the adjacent parts of Greece and Turkey.
[2] An ethnic group with origins in South Asia who are widely dispersed with their largest concentrated populations in Europe.

Hellenic Resources Network: Miscellaneous Greek News Sources. The Muslim Minority of Greek Thrace. April 1996.
Naim El-Ghandour is the president and co-founder of the Association of Muslims in Greece. He was born in Port Said, Egypt, in 1955, lives in Greece since 1974, has the Hellenic citizenship, and is a successful businessman.

Πηγή: spynews.gr

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