Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris isn’t backing down from giving permission to a group of students from the Muslim School of Komotini, in northern Greece, to visit and pray in Thessaloniki’s New (Yeni) Mosque – for the first time in 88 years – which drew fire from Greek Orthodox priests and nationalists.
Writing for the newspaper Kathimerini’s April 7 Sunday edition, Boutaris, a Leftist who has said that Greeks and Turks are brothers and should be closer, said the move will “promote the city by highlighting the full range of its historical and cultural legacy.”
Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, retains several Ottoman and Jewish structures. “The students’ visit… is a clear sign of respect and religious tolerance not just toward our Muslim citizens but also toward societies with majority Muslim populations,” he added.
Boutaris has also said he wants the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Thessaloniki to be recognized and be an attraction to visitors, although the founder of the modern Turkish Republic was in power during the slaughter of Greeks and the burning of Smyrna in Asia Minor in 1922.
His move to open the mosque comes as Athens is preparing to build one for the city’s Muslim population and Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus asked a court to block it, heating up up religious rhetoric and opposition from groups such as the ultra-religious neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Athens Mayor George Kaminis said he expects there could be dozens of mosques in the nation’s capital, angering critics who point out that Turkey still hasn’t allowed the reopening of the Halki Seminary, and that the government shouldn’t pay for building a mosque.
There is no separation of church and state in Greece as the government pays for the salaries of priests and religion is intertwined with politics. Before its economic crisis took hold, Greece had been seeing an increase in immigrants across the board, including from Africa and Middle East countries with large Muslim populations, who are demanding an official mosque.