Following decades of debate and political wrangling, the Greek parliament approved plans for the first official mosque in Athens in over 150 years.
Heavy opposition for Greece’s far right groups, including the Neo Nazi Golden Dawn members of parliament, were not enough to block the legislation, which was passed overwhelmingly with 206 members voting yes, and 24 against, out of the 230 MPs present.
The Syriza government of prime minister Alexis Tsipras also saw unusual opposition from their own coalition partners from the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) party.
The Greek government will fund the construction of the mosque, estimated to cost around $1 million, in the Votanikos neighborhood of central Athens.
Although discussion of building a mosque was supposed to be completed years ago to tend to the religious needs of an estimated 300,000 Muslims that live in the Greek capital, the first law was passed back in 2006 by the right wing New Democracy government of prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis.
Proponents in the government said the mosque could prevent potential radicalization of muslims living in squalid conditions in Athens who are forced to pray in makeshift mosques that are created in unsafe basements and buildings in center-city slums.
Greek Education Minister Nikos Filis told Kathimerini, Greece’s largest daily newspaper that “If we wish to avoid the problems facing France and Belgium, we should not make the mistakes that they are now trying to deal with. The existence of makeshift mosques is a shame for the country as well as for the Muslim community and a danger to national security.”
Muslims in Greece have been petitioning successive governments for the right to an official place to pray for decades, while facing barbaric opposition from far right groups, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church which is the official religion of the nation.
In February, the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, insinuated that the mosques could become “schools for jihadism and fundamentalism” in an interview with Greek TV channel Skai.
“Are these people going to pray there or will mosques become schools for jihadism and fundamentalism? Who is going to monitor this?” he said.
For many in Greece, the mosque issue touches at the heart of the nation’s national identity, which was built on its independence in 1821 over the Ottoman Empire.
Students are taught about entire populations of Christian Greeks who were forced to choose death over forced conversion by sword-wielding Muslims, while stories of women jumping to their deaths with their infants in hand to avoid becoming enslaved by Turks have become part of the national consciousness.