November 29, 2010

Athens Mosque Plan Faces New Hurdles

Far-right groups threaten to stop construction of mosque, while Zaha Hadid denies she offered to design it.

Helena Smith
November 28, 2010

A controversial bid to build a mosque in Athens has assumed new, more dramatic proportions amid threats by the far-right to stop its construction and a denial by the renowned Anglo-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, that she is involved in its design.

Tensions have soared in the only EU capital where Muslims are still forced to pray in underground basement flats and garages in the absence of a proper place of worship.

Two weeks after a neo-fascist party won its first-ever seat on Athens council in local elections – highlighting growing Greek hostility over the country's rising immigrant population –opposition to the decades-old project has grown.

London-based Hadid, whose ultra-modern creations include Rome's Maxxi: Museum of 21st century Arts, took the unusual step of refuting local media reports that she had offered to design the state-funded mosque for free.

"The practice has not been approached by the authorities in Greece nor by any other institution regarding a mosque in Athens," her office said in a statement.

"Recent reports referring to Zaha Hadid Architects' involvement in the project are unfounded."

The rebuttal is the latest twist in a saga that dates back to the 1930's over whether the predominantly Christian Orthodox state should officially cater to followers of Islam.

Not since the Ottomans evacuated Athens in 1832, nearly 400 years after they marched into the city, has a mosque operated within its confines. The legacy of such rule has meant that outside Greece's Muslim-dominated province of Thrace, Nicosia in Cyprus is the only city in the Hellenic world where the muezzin can still be heard.

Arguments over locale and funding have added to the row. In the run-up to the 2004 Athens Olympic games, an offer by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to finance a mosque near Athens international airport was vociferously opposed by the Greek Orthodox church on the grounds that the sight of a minaret and dome might make visitors wonder where they had landed in an Islamic state.

A law passed in 2006 by the previous conservative administration foreseeing the construction of a Muslim place of worship on a former naval site near the city centre foundered after locals put up a stiff fight.

Today, resistance has been fuelled by the country's dire fiscal straits. With unprecedented government cutbacks and economic austerity, many Greeks have asked whether it is appropriate to allocate funds for a mosque.

"Why should we spend money to build a mosque?" Maria Kontou, a pensioner, was quoted as saying in the English-language Athens Plus. "Did we ever get help to build Greek Orthodox churches abroad?"

But as a gateway to the EU of illegal immigrants, Greece's Muslim population is also growing. At nearly half a million, the community stepped up pressure on the ruling Socialists to resolve the dispute earlier this month by staging mass public prayer sessions across Athens to mark the Eid al-Adha festival.

The open-air services triggered clashes between police and protesters from the extreme-right nationalist Chrysi Avgi party, who at one site pelted worshippers with eggs, deluged them with offensive leaflets and screamed obscenities.

Attempting to allay tensions, George Papandreou's government has announced that it will convene an international competition to design the mosque in the coming months.