Greek approval of mosque construction in Athens may better relations with Turkey

Greek approval of mosque construction in Athens may better relations with Turkey
(Saturday, June 25, 2016) 15:33

The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Wednesday the Greek government will start constructing a mosque and a Muslim cemetery for the Muslim minorities in the city.

Speaking at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Tsipras touched on refugee flows and the Greek government's efforts to improve the fundamental rights of minority groups living in Greece. Tsipras's promise concerns 200,000 Muslims living in Athens, while Athens is known as the only capital without a mosque in Europe.

Commenting on this project and its effects on Turkish-Greek bilateral relations, Sylvia Tiryaki from The Global Political Trends Center (GPOT) in Istanbul said that "The project is more of a social project rather than a religious project," while emphasizing that it will have a positive affect on Turkey-Greece relations. Reminding that the project has been on the table for a long time and therefore it should not be seen as "something new," Tiryaki added that "It is a part of improving the rights of minorities in Greece, but this time the cemetery is also included into the package." Commenting further on the issue, Greek journalist Vana Stellou from Agora News, said that "the mosque construction and Muslim cemetery is something that should have been done years ago."

Stelyo Berberakis, an Athens-based journalist for Sabah newspaper, said that despite the mosque project, the Greek government is far from fulfilling expectations. "The capacity of the mosque to be constructed would be for about 1,000 people at most, while there are 200,000 Muslims living in Athens," Berberakis said, adding that that Muslims in Athens think that it would only be a symbolic step. "But of course they would want to have a mosque, even if it is symbolic. They would even go for an Islamic cultural center," Berberakis said. Highlighting that the suggestion was approved in parliament, Berberakis further said that "the implementation of the project would affect Turkey-Greece relations positively. As Britain has just left the EU, I think it is a time we need each other the most."

Previously, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered the former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras the chance to assist building the mosque in Athens in 2013, as long as the Greek government was willing to issue the necessary licensing. In addition at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which was carried out by the U.N. Human Rights Council in May in Geneva, Turkey had also advised Greece to start building the mosque construction project and to assign a cemetery for the Muslim minorities living in Athens.

The Greek authorities have previously promised to reopen the historical Ottoman Fethiye Mosque, but the mosque has been in use as a museum since 2015, instead of a house of worship. In recent years Turkish authorities have said that Turkey could reopen Halki Seminary, which was closed in 1971, in exchange for the Greek government reopening Fethiye Mosque. The Halki Seminary's future is not definite at the moment, but still it is taken for granted that the recent policies of Greece will be a positive development in bilateral relation countries.

Established in 1844 on the island of Heybeliada off Istanbul, Halki Seminary was closed in 1971 under a law that placed religious and military training under state control. The EU and U.S. frequently criticize Turkey for not re-opening Halki Seminary, a decision that some experts argue is related to Turkey's interpretation of secularism.

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