Where muslims pray underground

Observations on Athens

Five times a day, every day, somewhere in Athens, thousands of Muslims pile into fetid basement flats to pray. Such makeshift mosques, found in the suburbs and backstreets of the ancient capital, are the only places of worship for followers of Islam.

Not since the Ottomans evacuated Athens in 1821 has a mosque operated within its confines. Indeed, outside the province of northern Thrace, Nicosia is the only city in the Hellenic world where the muezzin can still be heard. When I was a teenager growing up on the Greek side of the Cypriot capital, his call to prayer was the only contact I had with the "terrible" Turk.

Now that I live in Athens, I am surrounded by seven churches and two mosques, the latter among the few Ottoman relics that were not ransacked by the Hellenes upon their liberation. Both lie at the foot of the Acropolis, one in the heart of tourist land in Monastiraki Square. For 62 years, until the sultan's troops were forced to surrender, it was the imam who ruled beneath its great dome. After that, the building served as a barracks, prison, warehouse and folk-art museum, which it remains today.

Recently, however, the mosque has ignited old hatreds, as officials debate whether to license and reopen it for Friday prayers. Dora Bakoyiannis, Greece's first female foreign minister, proposed the mosque's reinstatement, arguing that it was vital to the country's growing Muslim community.

Roughly 200,000 practising Muslims, mostly immigrant workers, are thought to live in Athens. That they are forced to "meet in secret, in locations unsuited to prayer", is a violation of their basic human rights, said the Council of Europe as the EU this month stepped up pressure to resolve the issue.

After 500 years of Ottoman rule, anti-Muslim sentiment runs deep among Greeks, and the prospect of a mosque operating in the capital has filled many with dread. Leading the opposition is the Orthodox Church, which argues that sanctioning a mosque so near to the country's cathedral would not only be offensive but send the wrong message to visitors.

The row has highlighted how Athens, extraordinarily (and embarrassingly), remains the sole EU capital without a proper place of worship for Muslims. Arab embassies say their entreaties to successive governments to close the chasm have fallen on deaf ears. The issue not only is a blot on Greece's otherwise excellent relations with the Arab world but has become a point of contention with Turkey and the neo-Islamist government in Ankara.

It had been hoped that a mosque would be constructed in time for the 2004 Olympics, to showcase the city's modern, multi-ethnic look. Yet though a plot close to Athens International Airport was found, and funding provided by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the Church again waded in, saying the sight of a minaret and dome would make tourists wonder whether they had landed in an Islamic state.

An overwhelming 97 per cent of Greece's 10.2 million residents is baptised as Orthodox Christian. The emphasis on the state religion is such that members of the country's tiny Catholic and Jewish minorities complain that they feel like children of a lesser god. But no less, perhaps, than Muslims, who must go underground to pray.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war