- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

ATHENS — Greece would appear the last possible destination for Muslim immigrants — it is 99 percent Christian Orthodox; its 11 percent unemployment rate ranks near the highest among European Union countries and it is one of the less developed EU member states.

However, about 200,000 Muslims — or a quarter of all immigrants in Greece — now live in the capital, Athens, alone, up from 5,000 in the early 1990s.

The first wave came mostly from neighboring countries such as Albania, following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The second arrived after 1995 and included Muslims from farther abroad — the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Geographically their arrival in Greece makes sense. Greece straddles Asia and the West and is Europe’s eastern gate. It is the only EU country in the Balkans. And its seas bordering Turkey make for a porous border.

Greece is also the cheapest point of entry for many immigrants.

Ali, 21, who declined to give his last name, paid an illegal trafficking network about $3,800to smuggle him last year from Iraq into Greece — half of what it would have cost him to enter Germany. Ali makes about $38 a day doing construction, when he can find work. But with labor supply outstripping demand, he often finds no work, making it difficult to send enough money home to support his five siblings and mother. His father was killed by an explosion in 2004.

Immigrants in Greece, as elsewhere in Europe, have become a vital component to the work force, taking low-wage jobs — mostly in construction, agriculture and as domestic help — that many Greeks decline.

This does not mean Greece welcomes their presence, says Nassos Theodoridis, director of the Antigone Center for Information and Documentation on Racism, a human rights group.

“There has been a great deal of resistance to incorporating immigrants into Greek society,” Mr. Theodoridis said.

Work permits elusive

Laws in Greece make it difficult for minorities and even minority children to obtain equal status. And work permits remain elusive because of high costs, bureaucracy and ambiguities in the law.

A study by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia found that the presence of people from minority groups created higher insecurity in Greece than in any other European Union country.

Political gestures of good will toward minorities are often met with resistance. Most recent proof of this came earlier this month when Socialist Party leader George Papandreou’s decision to nominate a Greek Muslim lawyer for a prefecture in northern Greece sparked local outcry.

Political rivals in turn feed on the “traitorous blunders” of their opponents, so that the public and politicians reinforce xenophobic tendencies among each other, Mr. Theodoridis said.

Alexandros Zavos, chairman of the government-backed Hellenic Migration Policy Institute, or IMEPO, said the government is designing a program that will bring political parties, unions and the influential Greek Orthodox Church together to advance relations between Greeks and immigrants and produce a harmonious multicultural and multireligious society.

He said the government’s response thus far to immigration is not one of neglect and resistance. Immigration, he said, is a new phenomenon in Greece — indeed the number of non-Greeks living in Greece actually dropped by 4,000 to 247,000 between 1980 and 1990. The situation in Greece is far better than it is in other European nations such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, where the extreme right, feeding on anti-immigrant sentiment, has made political gains in recent years, he added. France’s failure to assimilate its minority communities led to rioting in Paris last fall.

Imam Munir Abdelrasoul from the Sudan, who has lived in Greece for 30 years and speaks fluent Greek, said relations between mostly immigrant Muslims and mostly Christian natives are “good.” Political attitudes seem to enhance the sentiment: Greece has maintained good relations with most Arab countries, while many Greeks are staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause.

No mosque in Athens

But Imam Abdelrasoul said those feelings of good will are being challenged by the absence of a mosque in Athens — making it the only European capital without one.

The Greek government backed a plan to build an Athens mosque in 2000. But the proposal was never incorporated into legislation because of a change in government and opposition from locals and church officials. And while officials continue to make statements supporting the building of a mosque, little has been done to move ahead on the idea.

The Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs “has the right to give all the necessary permits for religious places of worship,” said spokesman Charidimos Caloudis. But the minister, Marietta Giannakou, declined to comment when asked to provide a time frame for the formal approval of construction and what the cause for delay has been.

Some analysts say it is politically risky to push for the construction of a mosque. Greeks were brutally oppressed under 400 years of Ottoman Turk rule and many Greeks have come to associate Islam with that painful period of their history.

“Some Greeks equate Turkish rule with Islam,” said Marios Begzos, professor of comparative philosophy of religion at the University of Athens. “But Greeks and the Greek government must learn to distinguish between Turks and Muslims.”

To some extent they have. About 150 mosques exist in Greece, mainly in the northern region of Thrace, where an estimated 150,000 Greek Muslims live, and the Orthodox Church has donated 300,000 square feet of land, worth an estimated $20 million, in west Athens for use as a Muslim cemetery. But the symbolic void of a mosque in the capital threatens to overshadow these gestures.

International concern

The absence has drawn international attention. Leading up to the 2004 Olympic Games there was talk in the international Muslim community of boycotting the games. And the Saudi Arabian government has pushed strongly to fund the construction of a mosque and cultural center.

The construction of the cultural center raised concern among the Greek community, given the Saudi government’s reputation for promoting puritanical Islam. The Greek government since has promised to fund and oversee construction of the mosque, minus the cultural center.

Location is said to be the last main sticking point. A spot near the airport was once considered but few Muslims live there. There was talk of renovating a mosque left over from Turkish rule in the shadow of the Acropolis that has since been turned into a folk art museum. But it is very small — not suitable for Friday prayer — and a symbol of oppression to many Greeks.

A plot of land adjacent to where the cemetery will be constructed is said to be the most likely candidate.

Critics charge that if the government were really intent on building a mosque a location would have been chosen by now.

In the meantime, Muslims in Athens pray among 20 nonofficial prayer centers around the capital, most of which can hold no more than a few dozen people.

Imam Abdelrasoul said Muslims in Greece are likely to remain patient on the issue.

“Good relations between Muslim and Greeks are ancient. But I hope officials will come to understand that when people feel respected and accepted in a society they feel more satisfied and inclined to honor that society.”

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