Footprints: keeping the faith

Published November 15, 2016
Makeshift mosques in Athens also give worshippers, many of whom are refugees from the African and Asian continents, a chance to socialise in a safe space away from Christian missionaries and fascist groups.—Photo by writer
Makeshift mosques in Athens also give worshippers, many of whom are refugees from the African and Asian continents, a chance to socialise in a safe space away from Christian missionaries and fascist groups.—Photo by writer

Majed, 45, pays little attention to his surroundings as he rushes down the street to reach the makeshift mosque where he will say his Friday prayers. He races from one block to the next, passing stores and restaurants where many of his Afghan friends work. He invites them along: “It’s Friday prayers, come.”

None take him up on his invitation.

But Majed continues on his way, undeterred. He takes great pride in the fact that despite having spent more than a decade on the European continent, he’s never missed a Friday prayer. “Some Muslims come here and don’t pray any longer, but I won’t accept that for myself,” he says. “If I remember God, He will remember me.”

Referring to the mosque, one Afghan shopkeeper says: “It belongs to the people but to be honest, I’ve never been there.”

Majed’s devotion to his weekly prayers is especially commendable in Athens, which carries the distinction of being the only capital city in the European Union without a formal mosque. This, despite the fact that by many accounts, the city is home to between 200,000 and 300,000 Muslims.

But, this may soon change. After 10 years of political wrangling and societal opposition, in August, the Greek parliament finally approved plans for the construction of a $1 million mosque on the outskirts of the capital.

It wasn’t easy to get the parliament’s approval, though.

Resistance to the building of the mosque — the proposal for which had been brought to parliament for approval in 2000, 2006 and 2011 — had come from all sides. Members of the Greek Orthodox Church, with which more than 95 per cent of Greeks self-identify, expressed their disapproval. Some speculate that that opposition may be due in part to stories of the 400 years Greece spent under Ottoman rule.

Then there are the right-wing groups that many Muslims in the country, including Afghan refugees like Majed, see as fascists. In 2013, the Golden Dawn, a party identified in the media as a neo-Nazi group, gathered 700 people to protest against the building of the mosque. There were also others who felt that a country saddled with an economic downturn, crushing austerity measures and a joblessness rate of 23.4pc could not spare a million dollars for the cost of construction.

Still, the approval eventually came.

Nikos Filis, the education and religious affairs minister, told a local newspaper that the mosque would be a way to prevent the ‘radicalisation’ of the nation’s Muslims. When completed, it will be the first official mosque in Athens in 180 years.

“They keep saying it’s coming, but I have yet to see it,” Majed says, noting the months that have passed since the initial announcement. Until it materialises, Muslims in Athens will have to continue to make do with nondescript places of worship in basements and storage spaces.

For Majed, who came to Greece from Afghanistan 12 years ago, these simple gathering places offer rare solace from the limbo he and thousands of other Afghan refugees find themselves in.

“I’m stuck here like a prisoner,” he says, in a sign of his frustration with the current situation for Afghan refugees in the EU. “I made the mistake of telling them I was from Kabul.”

In October, the European Union made public an agreement it had signed with Kabul that would require the Afghan government to help assure and expedite the deportation of Afghans whose asylum cases have been denied. It’s a policy predicated on the belief that there are ‘safe’ areas of Afghanistan for people the EU believe to be ‘economic migrants’ (as opposed to refugees) to be deported to. Kabul is one of those areas deemed ‘safe.’

“I couldn’t lie, but the truth is no good when they have lists of places that they say aren’t at war,” Majed says. The paradox that he can’t return to Afghanistan — where the UN has documented a record rise in civilian casualties over the last three years — but he won’t be accepted in Greece either, is difficult.

Still, he is glad he can turn to his faith.

The mosque is in a modest building on a side street not far from Victoria Square Park, where dozens of refugees from the Asian and African continents while away the days until they can secure the opportunity to go further into Europe.

There is no minaret, and the imam gives the call to prayer from a little pedestal at the front of the crowded, dimly-lit room. The only sign that this is a Muslim place of worship is the Arabic word Allah written in white paint against the black door. It may not be like the opulent mosques of Turkey or Afghanistan — the ventilation pipes are exposed, the awkward layout of the room forces people to cram into a small, confined space — but Majed is happy he can gather with his fellow Muslims once a week.

“At least we have this,” he says as he takes off his shoes and descends down the stairs into the basement unit where dozens of Muslims — men, young and old, from Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — have gathered to pray.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2016

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