Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Muslims in Athens an Underground Thing

Moving Islam out of the basement

Immigrant Muslims in Athens now have a 1,800m2 cultural centre to call their own. It's the first formal Islamic prayer site to operate in Athens since the end of Ottoman rule nearly 200 years ago


The new home of the Arab Hellenic Centre for Culture and Civilisation in Moschato also serves as the city's only formal place for Islamic prayer

"IT'S light, bright and open," says Mohamed Abedlkader, enjoying the morning sunlight streaming in through the large picture windows of the new premises of the Arab Hellenic Centre for Culture and Civilisation in the southern Athens suburb of Moschato on June 26.

"We finally have a view of the sky," he adds, referring to the many makeshift mosques in Athens that are housed in underground apartments. "We finally have a place to gather and to pray that we can be proud of."

The Egyptian shopowner is the general director of the Arab Hellenic Centre for Culture and Civilisation, which was founded in 2001 by a group of Arab-born Muslims residing in Athens.

The centre's new three-storey 1,800m2 building, which faces southeast (towards Mecca, a city in western Saudi Arabia and the most sacred city in Islam), was opened on June 22. It boasts three carpeted prayer halls - a main hall for men, another for women and a third in the basement to contain a spillover crowd.

Even though it has no crescent-capped minarets - the familiar beacons to Muslims everywhere - the new brown-brick Moschato building hosts the city's first formal (though not official) mosque.

"Yes, this is a place for prayer, but it is not an official mosque," says Abedlkader, who is also one of the six imams at the Moschato centre. "We have been underground for so many years that this is a good place for us. We feel happy to sit here and to meet people here. Now we have a place to hold our meetings, our celebrations, our wedding parties. We have our own place."

But the centre's 2,000-person capacity cannot serve all of the city's Muslim immigrants who reportedly number more than 100,000. "We still need an official Athens mosque," adds Abedlkader, referring the Greek government's pledge to construct a mosque in Votanikos, on the outskirts of Athens. It is unclear when construction will begin.

The city's estimated 120,000 Muslim immigrants currently pray in underground apartments, garages, basement shops and other rented spaces, which members of this growing community have converted into makeshift mosques. There are more than 20 unofficial mosques scattered around the city. All of them are inconspicuous to passers-by.


The Moschato centre will also serve as a local immigrant Muslim community centre.

"We want to work on two levels," explains Abedlkader. "We want to work with Arabs because they need lessons about their religion and about the Greek language and Greek culture and because they have been living here for so many years but most of them do not know how to speak Greek. We also want to work with Greek people who want to know about the Arabic language and Arabs. This place is the perfect place for something like this because there is a lot of room."

Another future endeavour is to set up an in-house tourist agency so as to assist Muslims who wish to visit Mecca during the annual hajj. According to Abedlkader, they also want to open an Arab grocery on the ground floor so that the proceeds can be used to cover the centre's operating costs.

The purchase of the building
(a former textile factory) and much of the renovation was financed by a wealthy Saudi Arabian investor and entrepreneur.

"He had visited Athens several years ago and had prayed at one of the small, underground mosques in Athens," says Abedlkader. "He said that there should be a better place for Muslims to pray. This is why he did it."

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