It took Athens a century to open a mosque for the Muslim community.
Surviving legal, political and financial challenges, the Athens dream mosque opened earlier this month, only to close in less than a week due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Located in Votanikos district, the mosque, which has neither minaret nor dome, was meant to be completed in 2017.
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As the second wave of COVID-19 hit the world, restrictions immediately limited the mosque designed for around 350 worshipers to only 13 at a time.
Then, the day after the mosque’s first Friday Prayer, Greece went back to a national lockdown, forcing the mosque to shut down completely for now.
“My feelings are split in two. On the one hand I feel incredible relief and happiness — finally we have a mosque we can pray in,” Mohammed Zaki, the mosque’s 55-year-old imam, said in the courtyard before an early-afternoon call to prayer on the day the new lockdown was announced, The New York Times reported.
His joy was tempered both by the COVID-related restrictions and the fact that dozens of makeshift mosques in the capital were now likely to close.
“It’s a huge problem,” Zaki said. “We are not 10 or 20 people,” he said, referring to the roughly 200,000 Muslims who live in Athens. “Where will all these people go?”
“I hurt for those who come to pray and are turned away,” he added.
Tens of thousands of Muslim migrants live in the greater Athens area. They have been using informal prayer rooms in basements and disused stores.
Around 70 venues operate as unofficial prayer sites. Though 10 of those venues have secured permits to continue operating, the remainder must either obtain permits or close.
Among those now permitted is the Greek-Arab Educational and Cultural Center, which opened in 2007.
Despite restrictions, some Muslims see the mosque opening as a shift in attitudes of the Greek government.
Muhammad Shabir Dhama, a 60-year-old restaurant owner from Pakistan, was positively beaming when interviewed on the mosque’s grounds on the day the lockdown was announced.
“I have no words,” he said, wearing prayer robes, a face mask and protective shoe coverings. “I’d like to say a big thank you to the Greek government and to everyone who helped make this happen.”
However, some are not satisfied, including the head of the Muslim Association of Greece, Naim Elghandour.
“It looks like a warehouse or an oversized kiosk,” he said. He also took issue with lettering on the building saying “Education and Religious Affairs Ministry.”
“They’re saying, ‘Muslim, you’re not equal,’ showing them it’s controlled by the state,” he said.