Javed Aslam extends his palm and wraps his long fingers around a visitor’s hand. The president of Greece’s Pakistani community, he’s agreed to give a tour of the mosques scattered across Athens.
Although ‘mosques’ isn’t exactly the right word. These houses of worship are largely unofficial and hidden, offering a small refuge for faithful Muslims in a country with no central mosque. Older, bigger Islamic establishments are officially registered only as ‘cultural centers’. Newer ones are either unregistered or have filed papers to become legal, but remain registered as spaces offering ‘religious services’.
“The Greek government keeps promising us an official tzami (mosque), but it never gets constructed,” Javed explains from his office, which overlooks the central Kotzia square.
With around 350,000 Muslims living permanently in Greece — about three percent of the population — and with the recent influx of refugees and migrants flocking to Europe via the Greek islands, the need for a visible mosque is greater than ever, he says. But the lack of official space hasn’t stopped people from creatively sidestepping the prohibitions, constructing prayer spaces behind closed doors.
This omission stems from historical trauma. After four centuries of Ottoman rule ended in 1821, Greeks wanted to fully embrace their Orthodox Christian roots, and forbade mosques. Massacres of Greeks living on Ottoman soil in the early 20th century further solidified this aversion. And for the Greek Church an abstract threat still lingers — justifiably or not.
Stepping out into the street, Javed starts his tour walking west, joined by a small entourage of men. On a quiet street, nestled between two closed stores, he points to a large door. Above it, a hand-drawn sign reads “Al Gabar”, Arabic for “The Congregation of the Almighty”.
A man walks out, dressed in ceremonial attire, speaking into his cell phone. When he hangs up, one of the men with Javed asks permission to enter with a female guest. The man from the mosque is reluctant, and negotiations last a few minutes. Finally, he relents.
The space is cavernous. The layout is that of a typical storage building, without windows. The air is damp and the room is extremely quiet, despite the dozen people gathered inside. On the left side of the entrance is a reading room, where children kneel in front of low benches to study the Koran. At the right is the ablutions section, where visitors ceremoniously wash their hands and feet upon entering; three rooms in the back offer space for praying. The second floor is a single low-ceilinged room with a series of religious books on one side and some personal items on the other. The third floor is a terrace-cum-praying-space with a tarpaulin ‘roof’ resting atop wooden beams.
Three mosques, until very recently informal, were legalized in 2015 under a new law, but the government is still dragging its feet when it comes to constructing a central, and visible, congregation space.
After visiting the Al Gabar mosque, Javed and his entourage walk to another nearby space. Tucked deep inside a dark and quiet alley, completely hidden from street view, the interior feels more like a mid-sized living room with an attic. Pink and white colors, patches of blue paint mimicking tilework, and ruby-gold carpeting fill the room. Two men pray quietly facing the mihrab, the niche in the wall that points toward Mecca.
Back outside the men disperse, walking towards home through the streets where the signs, food, and smells offer options outside the norm — a focal point for the growing Muslim community. Having breathed new life into the crumbling streets, they’ve carved their own space, despite official resistance.