Can Muslims be allowed to pray under the Acropolis, Greeks wonder

Athens, Greece - A solidly Christian country with a sizeable Muslim community, Greece has spent years debating the establishment of a mosque somewhere in its capital -- without success.

A new round of debate on the topic opened this week, with Greek lawmakers discussing whether to reinstate a former mosque in the Athens tourist district of Monastiraki, currently used as a folk art museum.

Attributed to new Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis -- who was mayor of Athens until February -- the proposal appeared in the Greek press one day before the Council of Europe issued a report bemoaning the lack of sanctioned Muslim prayer sites in Greece.

In his report, the council's Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles said the Greek authorities had not kept a promise to create a mosque in the rural Athens district of Peania ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympics, leaving Muslim believers to still "meet in secret, in locations unsuited to prayer".

"Building a mosque in Peania could take 2-3 years ... but the Monastiraki (building) is ready to go," said pro-opposition Ta Nea daily, which broke the story on March 28.

A lively debate has begun, with both proponents and detractors noting that the proposed site in Monastiraki, built in 1759 during the Ottoman occupation of Greece, is a stone's throw away from the Greek Orthodox Church cathedral in the city centre.

"Restoring the functions of a former mosque at the foot of the Acropolis, and next to churches, would serve as proof of our city's tolerance," said Marios Begzos, professor of religion philosophy at Athens University.

"I have no objection to a mosque in Monastiraki as long as Turkey gives the keys of Haghia Sophia to the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate," countered conservative MP Stelios Papathemelis, referring to the iconic church of the old Byzantine capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) that was turned into a mosque when the Ottoman Turks captured the city in 1453.

The government insists that no decision has been taken on the issue.

Greece's Muslims currently have no sanctioned prayer sites outside Thrace, the Greek region closest to the Turkish border that is the home of a 100,000-strong Muslim community of Turkish origin.

The influential Greek Orthodox Church has made no official comment on the Monastiraki proposal, though its leader Archbishop Christodoulos in December expressed support for a mosque in the Athens area.

"It is our desire to create a mosque, but without creating religious opposition and fanaticism," deputy education minister George Kalos said recently in parliament.

Greek television stations echoed the sentiment, airing complaints by local shop owners who said a mosque would threaten the district's tourist character.

Noting that "dozens of churches are in operation in Istanbul," independent liberal deputy Stefanos Manos protested that the government is happy to hear the views of the Orthodox Church on the issue, but has not bothered to consult the Muslim community living in Greece.

"Nobody has asked us anything," confirmed Sudanese community imam Monir Abdeltrassou.

Questioned by AFP about the Monastiraki proposal, Abdeltrassou said the former mosque could only provide a "temporary solution" due to its small size. He added that the whole initiative could have been intended to placate Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, which have spent years lobbying for a mosque in Athens.