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Athens Struggles to Meet Needs of Muslim Athletes, Tourists - 2004-08-12

The Olympics will bring to Greece thousands of visitors from all over the world. For Muslims coming to Athens to see the games, finding a mosque to attend prayer services will not be easy. While there are more than 100,000 Muslims in Athens there are no official mosques in the entire city.

Maher Rassas' small store in this Muslim neighborhood of Athens serves as the local gathering point. Every evening, his basement serves as the local mosque. While Maher Rassas does not mind part of his home being used for prayer services, he says the building of an official mosque in Athens would help send a signal that all religions should be valued and respected.

"I like these people in government to in the future see Islam as more better than now," he said.

Since Greece won its independence from the Muslim Ottoman empire in 1821, the Greek Orthodox church has been the dominant religion. Professor Stephanos Rozanis of the Pantheon University of Athens says the church is also a powerful political force that has blocked all efforts to build a mosque in Athens.

"The Greek Orthodox Church harbors a lot of fanaticism and this is also reflected in Greek society as a whole, that Greeks are afraid or against what is different," he explained.

Father Demetrius Niku, pastor of the Mitropolis Cathedral in Athens, denies the church has played any part in preventing Muslims from building a mosque in Athens. He says the influx of large numbers of Muslim immigrants to Athens is a recent development.

"Now since the need is arising for Athens to have a mosque, there is no one stopping them from creating a place to carry out their worship," he said.

But Greek Muslim leader Imam Sherif is hoping the Olympics, and the thousands of journalists who are in town to cover the games, will make a difference. Imam Sherif is the coordinator for Muslim prayer services in the Olympic village.

"I hope that the attention that the Olympics brings will solve it. There are over 100,000 Muslims in Athens and it is time they have a place to pray," he said.

He says Athens and much of the world should follow the example of Olympic athletes, both Christian and Muslim, who pray side by side at prayer services in the Olympic village.