World Bulletin / News Desk
“A mosque? Here? Between two Greek navy bases?”
Giannis Ioannidis is a retired businessman leading a 30-strong group of men in military-style clothing who have taken over a downtown Athens premises earmarked as the site for Greece’s first official new mosque in a century.
Now the 74-year-old’s makeshift group of self-described “patriots” has plans to turn it into a homeless shelter -- for Greek people only.
“The mosque will be full of terrorists and it would be located in a former navy base. This is unthinkable,” Ioannidis told Anadolu Agency, claiming “illegal migrants even use the children they bring with them for sympathy or worse”.
Visiting the site where the mosque is set to be built, one is greeted by thick chains and locks which keep unwanted visitors out of the former military base.
People wearing camouflage gear guard the perimeter and no one is allowed in unless they get permission from “The General” -- Ioannidis.
“General is a rank you -- sometimes -- receive from your group while on the battlefield. The people here call me that,” Ioannidis explained.
Although official mosques exist in northern Greece -- in areas such as Thrace where Muslim minorities reside -- until August this year the creation of official places of worship for Muslims in other areas of the country was prohibited.
Almost three months ago, the Greek parliament passed a bill which permitted the creation of official mosques in the Greek capital -- and the first is set to find a home at the abandoned navy facility in the Votanikos area.
Amid dozens of unofficial mosques around Athens, the one in Votanikos will be the first state-backed construction since the 19th century. The Greek government will cover the estimated one-million-euro [$1.09 million] cost.
However, almost three months after the bill passed, building work has yet to begin and Greek officials are seemingly unable to comment on the reason why.
According to Ioannidis, in the almost five months his men have been at the abandoned base, no one from the authorities has tried to stop their activities.
The 30 men -- who say they served in the Greek military’s special forces -- are determined to block the construction of the mosque.
Ioannidis, who says he served as commando in his youth, talked to Anadolu Agency while giving a tour of the premises.
He stated that not only will his group stop the mosque, he and his men are turning the abandoned base into a homeless shelter, albeit one strictly for Greek people.
Playing with a large German Shepherd, one of the many stray dogs that have found shelter in the former base, Ioannidis claimed “Greeks are refugees in their own country, without the right to get asylum.
“They are homeless and hopeless,” he added.
There are currently no official numbers on the amount of homeless people in Greece but according to estimations of various NGOs, there are more than 20,000.
According to International Organization for Migration data, almost 170,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe in the first three months of this year, many of them through Greece. However, Ioannidis says he is convinced they are lying about their identities and own fake passports.
A week earlier, the far-right party Golden Dawn demonstrated against the mosque, right outside the naval base. Just a few blocks down there is a camp accommodating more than 2,100 refugees and migrants, mostly of Afghan origin.
However, Ioannidis and his men claim they did not allow any far-right demonstrators to enter the premises and declined to associate themselves with the protest.
“We are not covered with the colors of any political party; we are patriots, that is our only color,” he said. He denied his group was Golden Dawn supporters but also denied being with “dirty anarchists”.
Anadolu Agency contacted numerous Greek government officials but no one was available to comment on the subject.
Although certain far-right actions have occurred in the country, the Greek government and the majority of the people have shown repeated support for the huge numbers of recently arrived refugees and migrants.
Since early October, refugee children are allowed to attend Greek schools in special programs. Local NGOs and individual volunteers visit migrant camps and provide what they can to support those in need.
Recently, the Greek island of Lesbos saw a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for residents who spent the past year saving refugees from the sea. Even though the citizens of Lesbos did not end up winning, they continue to support the 6,000 refugees and migrants stuck on the island.
At the moment more than 61,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece, according to official government numbers; the vast majority of them are Muslims.