Mosque to be built in Athens

Athens, Greece - Greece on Friday pledged to build a state-funded mosque in Athens for the benefit of tens of thousands of Muslims living in the Greek capital, a long-delayed project now supposed to be ready by 2009 at a cost of 15 million euros (19 million dollars).

The mosque will be built on land owned by the Greek navy in Elaionas, a run-down industrial area west of Athens, and will be the subject of an international tender, the Greek Minister for Education and Religion Marietta Yannakou told a news conference.

The chairman of the Muslim Union of Greece, Maazen Rassas, welcomed the announcement in as "very good news, as long as there are actions, not just words."

Athens' sizeable Muslim immigrant community, mainly comprised of Pakistanis, Iraqis and Egyptians, currently meets in small apartments and back rooms of shops to pray and has long lobbied for a sanctioned site of prayer.

Greece, which is over 90 percent Christian Orthodox, had promised to build a mosque in Athens at another site before the city hosted the 2004 Olympic Games, and with funds provided by Saudi Arabia, but the plan ran afoul of protests from local authorities and the country's influential Orthodox Church.

In March, Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles regretted that Muslims in Athens still have to "meet in secret in places unsuitable for prayer".

Two months later, nearly 10,000 Greek Muslims signed a petition calling on the state to fulfill its promises for a mosque in the Greek capital.

The area west of Athens is already earmarked for redevelopment, with a football stadium slated to be constructed by 2008, along with two metro stations.

Under the terms of a new law, the Elaionas mosque will operate within a private non-profit organisation staffed with representatives of the Greek state and of Muslim communities.

The mosque will be officiated by a Muslim religious leader paid by the Greek government, the minister said.

The only mosques in Greece are in Thrace in the northeast of the country where a minority of Muslims of Turkish origin lives.