Last July the Administrative Supreme Court (Council of State), rejected the last recourse against the construction of a Muslim mosque in the greater area of Athens (Votanicos district). In furtherance of that verdict, the Parliament voted, early in August, an implementation Act witch attained a large multi-partisan majority –the Golden Dawn (extreme right) and the Independent Greeks (ANEL, a government coalition partner), alone, voting it down. It remains to be seen if that development marks the beginning of a happy end or, at least, the end of a very long, inauspicious and utterly unpromising beginning.
“Schizoid” or “schizophrenic” were, until now, the only terms, in their precise psychiatric, meaning, adequate to describe the antiphatic, to diametrically opposed extremes, chronic conduct of the Hellenic State on the extent of the religious liberties of Muslims in the country, either Greek nationals or not.
On one extreme, Greece –our next issue will include a text in greater detail on this–, is the only corner of Europe where on the country’s Muslim community, in Thrace, are being inflicted the rules of the Islamic Religious Law (Sharia), which remains –up to the moment at least–, alien to the legal order of Turkey, despite the Islamic ideology of the present Turkish Government and its endeavours to impose on society a code of less secular conduct. Sharia rules remain also alien to the law of the other three mainly Muslim countries on Europe: Bosnia/Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. On the other extreme, Athens is the only European capital where the construction of a Muslim mosque was not, until a few weeks ago, legally feasible due to systematic resistance by the Church of Greece and powerful pressure groups from almost all sides of the political panorama.
It had, therefore, been substantially facilitated the response –in obvious bad faith, but well aimed–, the of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Greek remonstrations at the reading of the Holly Quran at the church of St. Sophia (now a museum), in Istanbul, during the month of Ramadan. That response was given in the sense that those who have, until now, failed to allow the function in their Capital of an official venue of Muslim worship, cannot ascribe to others any misconduct in the field of religious liberties.
The code of conduct and the essence of the prevailing ideology on such matters in Turkey today, under the new order which is rapidly crystallizing in the country after the failed military coup, have, since, been openly demonstrated when the retransformation of St. Sophia to a functioning Mosque became permanent –President Erdogan and members of his Administration invoking in defense of that decision such admirably modern principles as the “right of conquest” and the “will of God”, totally original, one must admit, in both European and North Atlantic company.
It was unfortunate, though, that a gratuitous deficit of correctness on the Hellenic side should have left a vulnerable Achilles’ heel exposed.
Yet, there was no scarcity of detailed official reports and policy papers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warning, since a long time ago, that what had by then become an endless mockery as to the Mosque in Athens, was providing all the pretexts Ankara needed whenever it misbehaved vis a vis the Ecumenical Patriarchate, reducing also the authority and the impact of Greek representations with International Organizations and EU partners on such occurrences. Alas, all such MFA texts, once transmitted to other government departments, would find their place in garbage cans as soon as processions of protesting members of Parliament and mayors, usually led by Bishops brandishing their pastoral rods, had crossed the threshold of ministerial offices.
This reporter had, once, found himself amidst a similar scene, certainly amusing but also degrading. It must, however, for the sake of fairness, be noted that all Ministers of Foreign Affairs had always been extremely reticent and reluctant and even downright hostile receivers of such colourful deputations. Nevertheless, what would finally prevail was the view of their cabinet colleagues in charge of more… plebeian.. departments, shouting –the reporter is again bearing witness–, that they were “not interested in world policy, but only in what ordinary people in the street want”.
They have, thus, both the verdict of the Supreme Court and Parliament’s subsequent legislative initiative been very opportune. Is this definitive? One should not forget that many another governmental and parliamentary initiative on this matter eventually misfired, even in their final stage –e.g., in 1983 and in the early and mid 90s (1993-1996).
Doubtlessly the long prehistory of this issue is extremely edifying. For the moment, suffice it be said that the formal commitment for the construction of a Muslim Mosque in the greater area of Athens was assumed, to Arab Heads of State, by Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis forty years ago, while the first focused initiative to this end by a Greek Government was undertaken in 1880. A reference to the question of the Mosque was also included in the Greek-Turkish Convention of Athens of 1913.
In conclusion, promissing as recent developments may appear, it is evident that there is still, in the light of past experience, sufficient margin of doubt that the matter has been solidly and finally settled.