ATHENS (Reuters) - Men wailed in prayer in a drab Athens basement on Wednesday, marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in one of the Greek capital’s many makeshift mosques set up in garages or abandoned warehouses.
More than 200,000 Muslims from countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan are estimated to be living in Athens, a city of nearly 4 million, but it has not had a formal mosque since Greece - an overwhelmingly Christian Orthodox country - won independence from occupying Ottomans in 1832.
In June, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras vowed to build the city’s first mosque, as well as a Muslim cemetery. His education minister promised Muslim leaders licenses for makeshift mosques, many of which were targeted by far-right extremists in recent years.
“It’s really a good step, it’s really a positive step,” said Ashir Haider, representative of Greece’s Shi‘ite Muslim community, which celebrated the end of Ramadan in a basement in a shabby part of Athens lined with car repair shops.
“It makes us feel happy and relaxed that they will not let us behind (neglect us),” he said, speaking in English.
Since Europe’s migrant crisis began last summer, a further 50,000 mostly Muslim migrants and refugees who fled wars in the Middle East and beyond became stranded in Greece after countries northwards to western Europe closed their borders, and calls for a formal place of worship have grown.
Rights groups such as Amnesty International have criticized Athens for being one of the few European capitals without a mosque for local Muslims.
Plans for a post-Ottoman mosque in Athens began in earnest in 1880, with an act of parliament, but repeatedly fell through, including one timed for the 2004 Olympic Games.
In 2013, Greece’s then-conservative government revived the long-stalled project by awarding a consortium of Greek companies a tender to build a mosque for about 400 worshippers in a disused naval base in a rundown, industrial neighborhood.
That effort sparked far-right protests and divided Greece, a country which spent nearly four centuries under Turkish Ottoman rule and where the Orthodox Church plays a powerful institutional and cultural role.
“You never know if it finally happens,” Haider said of the latest mosque initiative. “But it’s good news because it’s a new government.”
Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich