By Annisa Essack
For more than a decade, the construction site of the Athens Mosque, sandwiched between a naval base and a bus garage in the district of Votanikos, was closed and the unfinished structure obscured from view by high walls.
The entrance looked more like a barricade, fortified with barbed wire and corrugated iron. Above, four wooden crucifixes fixed to the wire, the words “Orthodoxia i Thanatos” (Orthodoxy or Death) were emblazoned in red spray paint and to the left of the locked gate, leaflets bearing racist and nationalist slogans were layered over graffiti scrawls of “Stop Islam”.
However, a presidential decree put an end to years of government indecision and gave the go-ahead for the first official Muslim place of worship to be built in Athens since the days of the Ottoman Empire.
Following further delays, members of parliament finally voted in favour of a measure to accelerate the construction process in August 2016. Yet, more than two years later, the mosque remained unopened as opposition to the plans were strong. Last September, hundreds of supporters of the far-right, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party staged a rally at the site to protest against the state-funded building project.
But, Greece's largest city, the only European capital without an official mosque, officially opened its doors today though it is not expected to start operating immediately as its administrative committee has not yet been appointed.
The mosque, which will have no minarets or loudspeakers, will accommodate just 300 men and 50 women of the city’s approximately 250,000 Muslims.
Minister of Education and Religion Kostas Gavroglou, today, toured the mosque site and said he hoped to have the first prayer will be in September.
Greece repurposed or destroyed its mosques after it declared independence from the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire in 1821. Some were later constructed near the country's border with Turkey, where up to 150,000 Muslims live.