Being a Muslim in Greece, discrimination in the shadow of Turkey

Alberto Borreguero

Athens, December 4 (EFE).- Until a few weeks ago, Athens was the only European capital without an official mosque. The long Ottoman occupation and strained relations with Turkey continue to weigh on the lives of Muslims in Greece, who are often just pawns in geopolitical games.

In the middle of a polygon in the city of Piraeus, seven kilometers from the heart of the Acropolis, several Pakistani immigrants gather to pray in a small basement that serves as an informal mosque. The Urdu banners and the ancient relics they placed are the only elements that give this space a religious appearance.

“This place of prayer was built by our parents in 1978”, explains to Efe Asir Jayder, the representative of the Shiite community of Athens, where some 250,000 Muslims live. Most started arriving in the 1970s, from the Middle East, and in recent years their numbers have increased dramatically with the thousands of refugees who planned to continue their journey to other European countries but found themselves trapped in the Greek capital.

Greek immigrants and their children are only part of the community of believers in Islam in Greece. In the north of the country, in the region of Western Thrace, the echoes of the past resonate in many towns and cities where 150,000 Muslims of Turkish, Roma and Pomak origin reside.

In 1923, at the end of the war between Turkey and Greece, there was a population exchange between the two nations. Only two communities remained on their territories: the Greeks of Istanbul and the Turks of Thrace.

DISCRIMINATED FOR BEING TURKISH

Almost 100 years later, the Turkish Greeks of Thrace have ceased to exist on paper, although in their daily lives they struggle to maintain their roots, their culture and a decent standard of living.

After the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the Greek government stopped recognizing their Turkish origin and made them the “Muslim minority of Thrace”, an indirect reprisal against Turkey.

Many associations, such as the Turkish Union of Xanthi, have been banned for keeping the word “Turkish” in their name and, despite constant appeals and the 2008 European Court of Human Rights ruling in their favour, it is still illegal.

In addition, over the past eight years, the government has closed more than sixty minority schools citing a lack of students, even though these primary schools are essential for young people to learn Greek, since their mother tongue is Greek. Turkish.

“They consider us second-class citizens,” said Ismail Dikili, a 38-year-old shopkeeper from Komotini. For him, there is no doubt that the laziness of the state has a clear objective: the forced assimilation of the minority.

“We live here and we want to live here, we just need to be treated better, nothing more,” he adds.

ISLAM, A STATE AFFAIR

From 1990, the Greek state officially withdrew – in practice it has already done so – the Muslims of Thrace the power to choose their mufti and imposed a religious leader on them.

Many believers refused and since then there have been two spiritual leaders: the official appointed by the government and the illegal chosen by the community, who constantly suffers fines and lawsuits.

“Why do Christians have the right to choose their bishop, and not Muslims? We claim the same rights as Christians”, denounces Ahmed Mete, the mufti elected by the community and whose house appeared a few days ago the graffiti “the only good Turk is the dead Turk”.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Athens, the Greek state has funded the creation of the new mosque to the tune of 15 million euros, with a capacity of 300 men and 50 women.

Until the construction of this building, most Muslims in the capital had to pray in the cellars and attics where they established their places of worship, often illegally.

“For us, it’s a relief to finally have a legal place to pray, without the anxiety of seeing the mosque closed for whatever reason,” said the imam of the new mosque, Mohamed Zaki.

However, the construction had to face many critics, both members of the Orthodox Church and far-right movements, who put up legal obstacles.

“For a long time we heard that Athens was the only European capital without a recognized mosque. Today it is the only one with a state-funded mosque,” ​​Jayder proudly says.

THE SHADOW OF TURKEY

For the secretary general of Cults, Yorgos Kalantsís, it was important that the financing of the Greek state avoid foreign interference, “as in other European countries”.

The representatives of the various groups of Muslims agree that the discrimination they suffer is fundamentally due to the fact that the Hellenic State regards them as spies or agents of its historical enemy, Turkey.

Although Kalants denies that the delay of the mosque, which opened eleven years later than planned, is due to complicated relations with Turkey, he believes that Ankara is trying to instrumentalize Islam to impose itself as its protector in the whole world.

The mosque is a great relief for the Muslim community in Athens, but it is only a stopover. “The most serious thing is that we don’t have our own cemetery,” said the president of the Muslim Union of Greece, Naim Elgandur.

Families of Muslims who died in the Athens region must pay for their trip to Thrace to bury their loved ones in minority cemeteries.

This is the case of a young refugee who died of the coronavirus who is waiting for a collection to allow her relatives to transfer her from the Ritsona refugee camp.

Born in Afghanistan and died in Athens, her journey to her final resting place is not yet complete. EFE

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