Muslims in Greece

Greece, located in south-eastern Europe, shares borders with Turkey in the east and Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania in the north. Most of the areas that lie within the borders of present-day Greece were part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 1821. Within a few years after the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul), which was the nerve-centre of the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox Christian Church, in 1453, the Ottomans captured Greece in 1458. The period of Ottoman rule over Greece is known as Tourkokratia in Greek history.

The Ottoman Empire, 1350-1918

The Ottomans ruled over a vast, intercontinental empire, whose boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory extending from North Africa to the Danube and from Western Asia to the Balkans. The Ottomans Empire encompassed a multiethnic, heterogeneous population with a wide-ranging diversity of faiths, ethnicities, languages and cultural traditions.

Religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, especially Jews and Christians, enjoyed substantial religious, judicial, educational and cultural autonomy and freedom. Each religious group was designated as an autonomous community (millet) under the charge of its religious head, and had the freedom to manage its religious, legal, educational and cultural institutions. No restrictions were placed on the construction of synagogues and churches. The Jews had a chief rabbi and the major Christian groups had a patriarch or bishop. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Gregorian communities were placed under the leadership of their respective patriarchs. The former included, in addition to ethnic Greeks, all the Slavs and Romanians living in southeastern Europe while the latter included not only Armenians but also Gypsies, Nestorians, Copts and other Eastern Christians.

A large number of Jews who were expelled along with Muslims from Spain at the end of the 15th century found a hospitable refuge in Ottoman Turkey. Most of the Sephardic Jews settled in Salonica (now called Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city), where they formed a majority of its population. Salonica was taken by the Ottomans from Byzantine rulers in 1430. For nearly five centuries Salonica was under Ottoman rule and its multiethnic populace of Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It is significant to note that Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, a dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews, survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the German occupation of Greece in 1943, almost the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki was exterminated during the Holocaust.

The Ottoman Empire provided a safe haven for Jewish communities from Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. In addition to Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazis from Germany, France and Hungary and Sicilian Jews settled in Ottoman domains. During the last decades of the 19th century, Jews who faced persecution in Russia and Central Europe were invited to settle in Ottoman territories.

The Ottoman sultans welcomed and encouraged the immigration of Christians from western, eastern and southern Europe. Emperor Mehmet brought back Greeks to Constantinople from Trebizond and appointed a new patriarch for them. The Calvinists of Hungary, the Protestants of Siberia and the Cossack Old Believers of Russia sought refuge in Ottoman Turkey in their flight from Catholic and Orthodox persecution. The Greek Orthodox, Bosnian Franciscans and Armenian Christians were given substantial freedom and internal autonomy in respect of their beliefs, rites, churches and cultural traditions. The predominantly Christian regions of Cyprus and the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece retained their religious and ethnic character even after they came under Ottoman control. As a result of the security, freedom and economic opportunities provided by the Ottoman rulers, the empire’s Christian population increased by three-fold. Interestingly, Martin Luther lauded the Ottoman Empire as an exemplar of religious tolerance.


Bazaar in Athens, drawn by Edward Dodwell (1767-1832)

Ottoman Greece had a multiethnic population, comprising native Greeks, Jews, Turks, Armenians, Serbs, Albanians, Bulgarians and Gypsies or Roma. The relations among these communities were generally peaceful and harmonious, although there were occasional conflicts. The Ottoman sultans generally followed liberal and accommodative policies towards the empire’s ethnic and religious minorities. By and large, forcible conversion to Islam was an exception rather than the rule. The Greeks, who formed the majority, retained their dominance in trade and commerce and Greek shipowners became the maritime carriers of the Ottoman Empire. Some Greek Muslims, whose ancestors had embraced Islam during the Ottoman era, occupied prominent positions in the Ottoman Empire.


Huseyin Hilmi Pasha (1855-1922), Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire

Following the War of Independence (1821-1828), much of Greece’s Muslim population fled the country and took refuge in Turkey. Those who chose to stay back were either expelled from their lands, massacred or forcibly converted to Christianity.

Muslims of Greece

Greece is among the few European countries which are predominantly monoethnic, monoreligious and monocultural. More than 95 per cent of Greek citizens consist of ethnic Greeks who are affiliated to the Orthodox Church. There are some small ethnic minorities in the country, including Albanians (4.05 per cent), Vlachs (1.82 per cent), ethnic Macedonians (1.82 per cent), Pomaks, Muslims of Turkish origin and Roma or Gypsies (250,000). The Gypsies, who have been living in the country for centuries, are largely nomadic and make a living by metal recycling, petty trade and farm work. They are neither officially recognized nor protected by the state. During the past two decades, more than a million immigrants from Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have entered the country in search of better economic prospects or as asylum seekers. Immigrants are estimated to number around 1.2 million or about 10 per cent of Greece’s population of just under 11 million.

The Muslim population of Greece can be divided into five distinct categories: (i) autochthonous or native Greek Muslims of Turkish origin, who are largely concentrated in western Thrace (ii) Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks (iii) Muslim Roma (iv) descendants of Greeks who converted to Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries (v) recent immigrants from South Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa.


An old part of the city of Komotini in Thrace, largely inhabited by Muslims of Turkish origin

Muslims in western Thrace, who are predominantly of Turkish origin, are estimated to number between 98,000 and 140,000 (making up about one-third of the population of western Thrace and between 0.9 per cent and 1.2 per cent of the population in the country). The Pomak Muslims are descendants of native Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the Ottoman era. They are to be found in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Albania, Kosovo and the Republic of Macedonia. The majority of Pomaks speak Bulgarian as their first language and Greek, Turkish and Albanian as a second language. They are largely concentrated in the Rhodope Mountains along the Bulgarian border and are estimated to number around 35,000. The Muslims of western Thrace are an officially recognized minority.


Bulgarian-speaking Pomak Muslims from Rhodopes, photographed in 1932


A Pomak woman with her child

In 1923, under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, there was an exchange of population based on religious affiliation between Greece and Turkey. Under the treaty, Muslims living in Greece were required to immigrate to Turkey and Christians living in Turkey to Greece. The exchange of population involved approximately two million people, including 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Greek Muslims. The two communities were driven out from their homes and forcibly made refugees during the Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922). However, the Muslims of western Thrace and the Christians of Istanbul and the islands of Gokceada and Bozcaada were exempted from immigration.


Muslims praying at Ibrahim Serif mosque in western Thrace

Recent Muslim immigration to Greece began in the early 1950s. The early Muslim immigrants were largely from Egypt. In recent years Greece has become the main entry point for immigration into the European Union. Most immigrants consider Greece as a stop-over en route to northern Europe. Recent Muslim immigrants are estimated to number between 200,000 and 300,000.

Demonization and Persecution of Muslims

The attitude of mainstream Greek society, Greek Orthodox Church and state towards the Muslim minority is embedded in a specific historical, political and social context, which includes the conceptualization of Greece’s national identity, the contested legacy of Ottoman rule, strong undercurrents of racism and xenophobia and the current economic crisis.

Greek national identity is defined exclusively in terms of Orthodox Christianity, Greek ethnicity, monoculturalism and cultural homogenization. The Greek state and Orthodox Christian Church are closely intertwined. Greek national identity is reflected, until quite recently, in the citizenship laws, which are based exclusively on the principle of jus sanguine or descent. In response to the changing social and demographic character of Greek society, some changes were introduced in the citizenship laws in 2010, which provided for the automatic naturalization of children born in Greece of foreign parents, provided the parents had legally lived in the country for at least five years. The law also provides for the naturalization of foreigners who have legally lived in the country for at least seven years. However, large numbers of Greeks are not in favour of granting citizenship to foreigners of non-Greek descent. In the current academic and political discourse in the country, a discussion of cultural diversity, intercultural tolerance and recognition of minority rights is conspicuously absent.

The contested legacy of Ottoman rule and Greece’s troubled relations with Turkey continue to cast a long and sinister shadow over the country’s policy towards Muslims. In 1982 the Greek Supreme Court gave a ruling that outlawed the word Turkish as attached to any organization or association. The ruling caused widespread resentment and anger among Muslims of Turkish origin in western Thrace.

Under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Muslims of western Thrace were granted wide-ranging religious, cultural and educational rights, including the protection of Islamic family laws, the right to manage and administer religious endowments (awqaf) and to appoint religious officials, and the right to have bilingual schools. However, these rights have often been violated by successive Greek governments. Permission to reconstruct or repair mosques is often denied by the authorities.

The 1999 report of Human Rights Watch pointed out that the Turkish identity of Muslims in western Thrace is systematically denied by the Greek state and Muslims of Turkish descent are generally viewed with suspicion. The Greek state, according to the report, has taken several discriminatory measures aimed at either forcing ethnic Turks to leave the country and migrate to Turkey or to undermine their cultural identity. Faced with widespread racism, discrimination and demonization, between 300,000 and 400,000 Muslims of Turkish origin have left Thrace for Turkey since 1923. In 1951, the population of Muslims of Turkish origin in Thrace was 112,665. By virtue of an annual growth rate of 2% per annum, their population today should have been in excess of 300,000. However, it is estimated to be between 80,000 and 120,000.

The 1999 report of Human Rights Watch said that the right to appoint a religious official (mufti) to adjudicate in family and civil matters, granted by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne to the Muslims of Thrace, has been flagrantly violated by the state. In 1990 the Greek state assumed the powers to appoint the mufti, which was protested by the Muslims of Thrace. The muftis elected and appointed by the Muslims were persecuted and imprisoned. A law passed in 1980 and a presidential decree issued in 1990 transferred the management of Islamic endowments from an elected committee of Muslims to state officials. The Human Rights Watch report gave several instances of discrimination and violation of human rights experienced by Muslims in Thrace in respect of education and employment and restrictions on freedom of speech.

The vulnerability and precariousness of Greek Muslims are reflected in stigmatization and racial slurs, in the desecration and vandalization of mosques and cemeteries, in the denial of permission for the construction of mosques and cemeteries, in widespread discrimination in education, employment and housing, in physical assaults, and in the pitiable condition of asylum seekers. In 1990 there were violent clashes between Greeks and Muslims in the northern town of Komotini, in which Turkish shops and newspaper offices were ransacked and vandalized. A mosque in Crete was bombed in 2010. The conditions in detention centres, where tens of thousands of foreigners are incarcerated, are appalling. In March 2010 Amnesty International published a report indicting the Greek government for the violation of the human rights of asylum seekers. It said many asylum seekers in Greece, including women and children, received no basic assistance and were forced to live on the streets.

Muslims are often victims of assaults by far-right extremists. In October 2010, Greek extremists locked the door of a basement prayer room and hurled fire bombs through the windows, seriously wounding four worshippers. In May 2011 anti-immigrant violence broke out in Athens in which Greek ultranationalists assaulted foreigners. In 2012 more than 500 foreigners, mostly Muslim, were attacked. In most cases, the police turns a blind eye. A 19-year-old Iraqi Muslim died in Athens in August 2012 after being brutally assaulted by armed extremist groups. Hasan, a well-built Sudanese Muslim, was walking down the street in Athens at 11 pm one night when 12 Greek men on motorbikes pounced on him. They mercilessly thrashed him with sticks and inflicted knife wounds on his forehead and back and left him when he fell unconscious. Hasan had fled Sudan in 2011 when government soldiers stormed his village, burnt his house, killed his father and raped his two sisters. Hasan realized that, contrary to what he had imagined and anticipated, Greece was far more dangerous than his native Sudan.


Hasan, A Sudanese immigrant, was brutally assaulted by extremist Greeks

The financial crisis and economic hardships faced by some European countries have fuelled the resurgence of far-right and extremist groups and political parties, especially in Hungary, Greece and Spain. Greece’s far-right, neo-Nazi and fascist Golden Dawn party (Chrsi Avgi), which is now the third biggest party in the Greek parliament, is unabashedly opposed to immigration and blames it for the country’s economic woes. The party uses immigration as a scapegoat for Greece’s mounting frustrations and insecurities. Its cadres have been involved in attacks on Muslims and on Islamic prayer halls.

Athens: Capital Without a Mosque

Some 500,000 Muslims live in Athens. Since 1832, when Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, no government has allowed a mosque to be built in Athens. The Greek capital has the dubious distinction of being the only capital in the European Union which has no mosque. About 130 dilapidated and unused basements and warehouses in Athens are used by Muslims as makeshift prayer halls.


Muslims offering prayers in a makeshift room in Athens

In 2006 the Greek government approved the construction of a mosque in Athens and pledged to contribute one million euros for the purpose. The Greek Orthodox Church promised to donate 300,000 square feet in Athens for a Muslim cemetery. However, these promises have remained unfulfilled. Recently, the government has agreed to hand over a disused army barracks as a site for the construction of Athens’s first mosque. Though the Greek Orthodox Church, which exercises a powerful sway over Greek society, is not officially against the mosque plan, some Orthodox priests are opposed to the move. Bishop Seraphim of St. Nicolas Church in Piraeus, who is opposed to the idea, says, “Greece suffered five centuries of Islamic tyranny under Turkish rule and building a mosque would offend the martyrs who freed us.” “Most Muslims have come here illegally, to Islamize Europe,” he adds. In January 2013, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to fund the construction of a mosque in Athens.

Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, has no officially approved mosque. A grand mosque was built in the city in 1902 for the Donmeh Muslim community, whose ancestors had converted from Judaism to Islam. Following the immigration of the community to Turkey under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the mosque was converted into a museum in 1925 and thereafter into an exhibition hall. Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, promised in 2011 that the government would soon initiate the process to build a mosque and a cemetery for the city’s Muslim community. On March 30, 2013, a group of Muslim students were allowed to offer prayers in the mosque.


An 111-year-old mosque in the city of Thessaloniki was converted into a museum and later an exhibition hall in 1925. On March 30, 2013, 90 years later, a group of Muslim students were allowed to offer prayers in the mosque

Greece prides itself on being the cradle of democracy and freedom and on inheriting the illustrious legacy of Socrates, Plato and scores of other distinguished Greek philosophers whose ideas played a central role in the flowering of Western civilization. It is a matter of shame that today the same country is guilty of denying and suppressing the legitimate rights and aspirations of its indigenous minorities. Some eminent Greek scholars, such as Anna Triandafyllidou, argue that Greece needs to recognize its diversity and changing demographic and ethnic profile and accordingly reconstruct its national identity in an inclusive, egalitarian and accommodative framework.

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