By Kalliopi Bakogianni in Athens, Greece, for Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges
Anna Stamou is a mother of two, a caring wife and author of a book. From her looks, she is just another European woman. Yet she is the only Greek female to have been honoured by the European Network of Muslim Entrepreneurs (CEDAR).
Born to a Christian family in Athens, Stamou was always seeking answers for her inner philosophical quests. Coincidently she crossed path with Naim Elghandour, an Egyptian origin Greek citizen living in Greece since 1974. Stamou and Elghandour got married, thus began a process of closer contact with Islam.
“I simply found an answer for many questions I had,” she says. Six years ago after converting to Islam, she realised the difficulties a Muslim in Greece faces.
The couple created the Muslim Association of Greece, a non-profit organisation, in 2003 to promote a positive image of Muslims in Greece.
Stamou points out that Muslims in Attica have two main problems: the absence of a mosque and cemetery.
The Muslim population in Greece has been steadily rising over the past years, which is now estimated at 700,000. The country gets its share of immigrants, predominantly from Arabic speaking nations but from other Muslim countries as well. Like Stamou, many Greek nationals convert to Islam too.
Absence of an official prayer place for Muslims led to establishment of a private mosque. Soon other followed the suit. Muslims turned garages, underground basement flats, shops and unused rooms across Athens into mosques.
Today over 100 unofficial mosques attract Muslims five times a day but the number swells on Fridays.
“The first was founded in Gudi by a Sudanese, Dr Munir Abdelrasul, in 1984 and the second by my husband Elghandour in Piraeus five years later,” explains Stamou.
About social responses to mosques in basements and garages, she says no eyebrows were raised. “Neighbours are friendly. They understand and respect the fact that they need to place to pray. This is the true spirit of Greece,” she proudly states.
The idea of a mosque in Athens first was considered in the late 1930s. After a law was passed for the construction of a mosque and an Islamic cultural centre in 1980, ambassadors of Arab nations demanded a mosque. The plea was never entertained.
During the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, site for building a mosque was debated. The Muslim sportsmen and visitors all needed a place of worship. Marrietta Giannakou, the then minister of education and currently member of the European parliament, over-ruled the demand on the pretext that never a Greek asked for one, so no outsider should complain about its absence.
It was then that Stamou and her husband Elghandour contacted the ministry with plea to build a mosque.
“We told them that a mosque in Athens doesn’t have to be like the ones in Arab countries. They don’t have to be like palaces. Greek mosques should be in harmony with the Greek/Athenian environment and architecture,” Stamou recalls her talk with the officials.
The couple pleaded the case for a simple and functional building that does not provoke the local Christians.
The Greece parliament a law passed in 2006 allowing construction of a Muslim place of worship. Greece and the European Union provided 15 million to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to build a mosque.
“We prefer the mosque to be built with Greek public funds, because there is no segregation between state and the church. Thus, Muslims want the state to intervene with Islam in Greece as well,” Stamou explains.
“To other countries that might seem a bit crazy, but for us the Greek state is a great guarantor, because we live in a privileged democratic country, she proudly says.
Stamou clarifies that Greece may have deficiencies in politics and economy but delay in mosque construction has nothing to do with racism or Islamophobia.
“We have never heard no from anyone. The delay happens due to Greek bureaucracy,” says the Muslim activist.
The Orthodox Church in Greece seems to understand the problem. The Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Hieronymos II, stated, “It constitutes a basic humanitarian right of each person to address to his God, with honour and worship Him in places that are appropriate without any further delay”. The church of Greece gave its land in Shisto, in western Athens, to be used as a cemetery.
Now a Muslim dead body is either sent to a cemetery in Thrace, 800km from Athens in northeast of Greece along the borders with Turkey, or relevant embassies pay heavily to send them back home. Muslims living in Greece for decades wish to be buried here.
Though, most Greek favour equal treatment to Muslims living here, some are hesitant due to some stereotypes.
Katerina Nikolopoulou, a 50-year-old woman who lives in Athens, agrees that a mosque is necessary for Muslims to pray. However, she warned, “A ghetto may be created around the mosque.” Nikolopoulou complains of “several problems due to immigrants” in her locality. Senior Greek citizens are more hesitant towards Muslims and immigrants.
Illegal immigration accentuates negative stereotypes about Muslims.
“Just the way once communists were target of hate-mongers, now are Muslims,” Stamou says, hoping that the phase would be over as well.
The mosque, according to her, will give Muslims a chance to adjust and integrate easily with the Greek society.
“They will socialise easier and if an extreme voice is heard it will be isolated from the majority and then it will be on the hands of Greek justice to deal and repress it,” hopes Stamou, whose organization is prepared to deal with challenges ahead.
Like elsewhere in Europe, many Christian Greek women marry Muslims without changing their religion, thus half of the family is Muslim and half Christian.
“When I got married, I did not convert to Islam. It did not stop us from celebrating Christmas, and then again in Ramadan we gather as normally as others,” she recalls.
Greece has its indigenous brand of right wing population led by parties like LAOS.
Stamou states that they don’t argue because they disagree but “have a political agenda to promote”.
Maria Zouganeli, journalist in Madrid, Spain, observes, “Stamou is trying to stop the discrimination between ‘we’ and ‘they’, Muslims and Christians and the Muslim Association has been succeeding”.