Muslim Refugees In Greece Make Do Without A Mosque

Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Athens find themselves in the only major EU capital without a formal mosque. Muslims are celebrating Ramadan at a time when xenophobia in Greece is on the rise.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

This weekend Muslims begin observing Ramadan, the holy month of prayer and reflection and a dawn-till-dusk fast. Greece is home to a small but tight-knit Muslim community, some of whom are refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria. There's no public mosque in Athens, so they worship in converted basements and apartments. Joanna Kakissis visited one makeshift mosque in and sent us this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAM PRAYING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In a basement padded with rugs, the air conditioner at full blast, 40 people listen as an imam leads afternoon prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm behind a cream-colored curtain with two mothers from Syria and one of the women's two young daughters.

AMOS: The men and boys are on the other side of the curtain. With them is Naim El-Ghandour, a barrel-chested Egyptian in a bright yellow shirt. He's president of the Muslim Association of Greece.

NAIM EL-GHANDOUR: (Through translator) You will see every nationality here. You see Pakistanis, Malaysians, people from Indonesia, Kurdistan, the whole Arab world. All of them come here.

KAKISSIS: Including Mahmoud Ibrahim, a 45-year-old Iraqi Kurd from Mosul.

MAHMOUD IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: Ibrahim says he arrived in Athens two months ago, fleeing the militant Islamists who overran his hometown.

IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: My faith has given me courage and peace so I can think clearly during this difficult time, he says. Ibrahim is one of as many as 300,000 Muslims now in Athens - a city of about 5 million people, most Orthodox Christians. The Muslim community in Northeastern Greece has been there since Ottoman times and has state-funded mosques. Parliament has approved construction of a mosque in Athens, but years of bureaucracy and xenophobia have delayed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

AMOS: Foreigners, get out of Greece. That's what these people are chanting. They're supporters of Golden Dawn, a violent anti-immigrant party with seats in Parliament. The party is driving the latest rise in xenophobia here.

HALA CHHABI: My name is Hala. I'm 20 years old. I'm Palestinian Syrian.

AMOS: Hala Chhabi fled Damascus two years ago and says she won't walk around Athens after dark because she's heard about Golden Dawn attacks on Muslims.

CHHABI: They don't like Arabic people, don't like Islam, don't like hijab.

AMOS: But most Greeks have been kind to her, she says. And she feels safe in her apartment because it's above the makeshift mosque.

CHHABI: I have a house. I sleep at any time I want. I eat anything. I meet other people that don't have a house. They don't have eating. They are homeless.

AMOS: Like other Muslims in Athens, Hala waited for word on the start of Ramadan.

AMOS: That decision came after Naim El-Ghandour and Athenian Muslims from Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan went to the Athens Observatory to verify the visibility of the new crescent moon. Then, they sat outside next to an olive tree as El-Ghandour called the mufti in northern Greece.

EL-GHANDOUR: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: We can begin the fast, he said, as he hung up the phone. Ramadan starts now. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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