With almost 99% of the population Greek Orthodox Christians, Greece may seem like an unlikely destination for immigrant Muslims.
Its 11% unemployment rate ranks near the highest among European Union countries and it is one of the less developed member states.
Nevertheless, some 200,000 Muslims, representing a quarter of all immigrants in Greece, now live in the capital Athens alone, up from 5000 in the early 1990s.
The first wave came mostly from neighbouring countries such as Albania, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the governments it supported in Eastern European states.
The second wave arrived after 1995 and included Muslims from farther abroad – the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
From a geographic point of view, their arrival in Greece makes sense as the country straddles Asia and the West and represents Europe’s eastern gateway.
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, paid an illegal trafficking network €3000 to smuggle him last year from Iraq to Greece – half of what it would have cost him to fulfil his aim of entering Germany.
Many immigrants in Greece work
Ali, who declined to give his last name, makes about €30 a day in construction jobs, when he can find them.
More often than not, he cannot, he says, because supply outstrips demand, making it difficult to send enough money home to support his five siblings and mother. His father was killed in 2004 by an explosion.
However, immigrants in Greece, as elsewhere in Europe, are finding themselves a vital component to the work force, taking low-wage jobs – mostly in construction, agriculture and domestic help – that many Greeks decline.
And yet this should not be understood to mean that Greece welcomes their presence, said Nassos Theodoridis, director of Antigone, a human rights group.
“There has been a great deal of resistance to incorporating immigrants into Greek society,” Theodoridis told Aljazeera.net.
Laws in Greece make it difficult for minorities and even minority children born in Greece to obtain equal status.
And work permits remain elusive due to high costs, bureaucracy and ambiguities in the law.
A study by the European Monitoring Centre 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 goodwill towards minorities are often met with resistance.
The most recent proof of this came in early May when Socialist party leader George Papandreou’s decision to nominate a Greek Muslim lawyer for prefecture in northern Greece sparked an outcry.
Pakistani immigrants protest in
Political rivals in turn feed on the “traitorous blunders” of their opponents, so that the public and politicians reinforce xenophobic tendencies among each other, Theodoridis says.
Alexandros Zavos, chairman of the government backed Hellenic Migration Policy Institute (IMEPO), pointed out that the government is designing a programme that will bring political parties, unions and the influential Greek Orthodox Church together to advance relations between Greeks and immigrants and produce a harmonious multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
He said the government’s response to immigration so far was not one of neglect and resistance. Rather, he said, immigration is a new phenomenon in Greece.
Munir Abdelrasoul, an imam from Sudan who has lived in Greece for 30 years and speaks fluent Greek, said relations between mostly immigrant Muslims and mostly Christian natives in Greece are good.
And political attitudes seem to enhance that sentiment: Greece has maintained good relations with most Arab countries, while many Greeks are staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause.
But Abdelrasoul said those feelings of goodwill 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 a change in government and opposition from locals and church officials saw to it that the proposal never materialised.
While officials continue to make statements that support the building of a mosque, little has been done to actually build it.
The ministry of national education and religious affairs “has the right to give all the necessary permits for religious places of worship”, said the ministry’s press officer Charidimos Caloudis.
But Marietta Giannakou, the minister involved, declined to comment when asked to provide a time frame as to when the government would formally approve 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 during 400 years of Ottoman rule and many 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.”
“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 honour that society”
To some extent they have. Some 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 worth an estimated $20 million in west Athens for the purpose of a Muslim cemetery.
But the symbolic void of a mosque in the capital threatens to overshadow these gestures.
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 government has pushed strongly to fund the construction of a mosque and cultural centre.
The construction of the cultural centre raised concern among the Greek community, given the Saudi government’s reputation for promoting a strict interpretation of Islam.
The Greek government has since promised to fund and oversee construction of the mosque, sans the cultural centre.
Location is said to be the last main sticking point. A spot near the airport was once being considered but few Muslims live there. There was talk of renovating a mosque leftover 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 a Friday prayer – and a symbol of oppression to many Greeks. Land adjacent to where the cemetery will be constructed is now said to be the most likely candidate.
In the meantime Muslims in Athens pray at 20 non-official prayer centres around the capital, most of which can hold no more than a few dozen people.
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 honour that society.”