The situation of Muslim communities in Greece is always affected by chronic historical problems between Athens and Turkey, such as the exploration of Eastern Mediterranean gas, the division of the island of Cyprus, and maritime and air borders. Despite the recent escalation of tensions between the two NATO members, and Erdogan’s threat last September that military action could be launched against Greece “at any moment”, the situation of Muslims in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country is now improving significantly with the Greek government showing more openness and flexibility towards them, manifested in the establishment of the first Muslim cemetery in the capital, Athens, and two years before the opening of the first official mosque in it.
Greece has recently begun to attract large-scale illegal immigrants as it lies on the Balkan route to rich European countries, including increasing numbers of migrants from Muslim countries. At the same time, it hosts an indigenous Muslim minority in the northeastern region of Thrace, an area where Greek and Turkish culture overlaps.
Although opinions and statistics differ on the number of Muslims in Greece, the most accurate figures indicate that the number currently stands at about 650,000, of whom 500,000 are in the capital Athens (including 50-60,000 of Greek origin), and about 150,000 in the rest of the cities, constituting about 5.7% of Greece’s population of about 10 and a half million.
Muslims in Greece are of several origins: Turks west of the Trakia region, Bomak (Greek Rhodope), Albanians in northwestern Greece, Rhodes and Kos Turks, and Roman Muslim Roma. They are distributed in various regions, the most important of which is the capital, Athens, which hosts more than 150,000 Muslims, most of whom are from the Ottoman era. Native Muslims are also heavily found in Thrace in northeastern Greece, where the numbers range from 120,000 to 150,000 Muslims, and the city, with an area of 8,758 square kilometers and a population of about 400,000, remained under the control of Turkey until the end of World War I. The regions of Macedonia and Shmaria on the Albanian-Greek border also house several thousand Muslims.
In recent years, another significant minority has formed, consisting mainly of migrants who have come to Greece in search of a better life, job opportunities, or asylum in this EU member country, and some migrants who use Greece as a transit country to richer European countries. The newly arrived Pakistani migrants are currently the largest Muslim community in Athens, along with thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Iranians.
Muslims complain about the small number of mosques and cemeteries and bureaucratic procedures “that prevent them from obtaining citizenship”, the immigrant areas suffer from a relative scarcity in the number of mosques, despite the presence of about 300 corners and places designated for prayer in northern Greece, especially for the Muslim minority residing and obtaining citizenship.
Athens was the only European capital without an official mosque before the Fotanikos mosque opened its doors in November 2020, and is now the only European capital with a government-run mosque, which Muslims are divided between those who see it as a symbolic gesture from the Greek state, and others who believe it is a stark example of the government’s efforts to control and monitor the country’s Muslim minority.
“The mosque’s external view does not suggest that it is a mosque, there is no minaret, no dome, and no external call to prayer. This seems to be intentional in order not to give any impression that Islam has returned to Athens. The authorities also made sure that the name of the Hellenic Republic, the Ministry of Education, and the Athens Mosque were recorded on the façade of the building, which looked exactly like a Greek official service.” Lebanese journalist in Greece Shadi Ayoubi says
The goal of the Greek state is not to cover the religious needs of Muslims, but to get out of the banner “the only European capital without an Islamic mosque.” The journalist added in an article at the Umayyad Center for Research and Strategic Studies that the mosque “covers the need of the Greek state to raise the character of intolerance of those who are different in religion, without covering the need of Muslims who need a larger number of places of worship because of their large number on the one hand and the distance of their places of residence on the other hand.”
Organizations and Entities.
Muslims in Greece have launched a number of associations and entities through which they act to serve their interests, and through which they defend their rights and privileges, most notably the Association of University Graduates in Thrace, the Union of Turks of Xantia, in addition to the Greek-Pakistani Cultural Association. However, these associations face legal problems in a country where the (Orthodox Christian) religion plays an important role in social and political life.
The MB in Greece has no official presence, as in some neighboring countries. However, the Council of Muslims of Europe (formerly the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe), the main umbrella organization that sponsors MB associations and institutions active in the EU, has a presence in Greece through the Greek Development Forum in Athens and the Arab-Hellenic Center for Culture and Civilization, which opened in Thessaloniki in late 2005.
The MB’s most active organization today is the Muslim Association of Greece (MAG), headed by Naim al-Ghandour, an Egyptian-born who has lived in Greece since the early seventies and obtained Greek citizenship after marrying Anna Stamou, who converted to Islam and became one of the most active “Islamists” in Greece, where she serves as MAG’s spokesperson and is also a member of the League’s advisory board. She was also the director of islamfriends.gr, a website greeksrethink.com that catered to Greek converts around the world. Both sites are currently idle.
“Equal Society” is a website belonging to the MAG, Naim al-Ghandour claims that the association is “the largest inclusive Islamic union in Greece,” a phrase used by most MB organizations to monopolize Muslim representation before European governments.
The MB’s media regularly targets Greece against the backdrop of Cairo’s rapprochement with Athens, and adopts official Turkish positions on problematic issues between the two sides, such as land and maritime borders, and even goes beyond that to glorify the Ottoman presence in Greece and the Arab world.
The group’s platforms use religious rhetoric charged with crude emotional language, in its incitement campaigns against Greece, portraying Athens and Greek Cyprus as enemies of Islam. For example, a report on the group’s official website, entitled “Greece: A History of Demolition and Incitement to Mosques,” stated that “the demolition of Islamic monuments has become a goal in Greece and Cyprus, including the destruction of Turkish-Islamic buildings, especially mosques, one by one.”