Muslim refugees in Athens seek own cemetery – World


Standing near the small grave of her five-year-old son at the Orthodox Christian cemetery in Schisto outside Athens, Esfandiyar Fagkiri says he feels “two pains”.

Not only did he lose one of his five children, but the Afghan family could not mourn him according to Islamic rites because the graves were Christian.

Hasibollah Fagkiri was hit and seriously injured by a truck in January 2021 while playing with other children near the entrance to the Malakassa refugee camp, north of Athens, where he had been living with his family since September 2020.

Non-governmental organizations and local authorities blamed the accident on the camp’s poor security conditions and demanded that it be closed.

After burying their son, the Fagkiri family was shocked to learn that his body would have to be removed after three years – by 2024.

This is a common practice in Greek cemeteries due to the lack of permanent space – especially in the vast Athens area where more than a third of the country’s 10 million people live.

But for Hasibollah’s grieving family, it is unthinkable.

Islam does not allow the exhumation of a grave or the cremation of a body and the body remains buried forever, Fagkiri explained.

But for people who do not have a paid family grave, “exhumation after three years is compulsory,” insisted Dimosthenis Stamatatos, head of a municipal organization near the Schisto cemetery.

Esfandiyar Fagkiri, 38, is watering plants at the grave of his son Hasibollah, who was accidentally killed last year at the age of five in a truck at a Greek immigrant camp, in the Schisto Orthodox Cemetery, on the western edge of Athens. May 10. – AFP

Rising prices

The bodies of the dead are usually kept in a special cemetery for the church.

Greece is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, and Islamic tombs can be found only in Thrace, a northeastern part of the country near the Greek-Turkish border, some 450 miles[750 km]from Athens.

The region is home to a small minority of Muslims for centuries, a legacy of the existence of the Ottoman Empire in the area.

In Athens, the number of Muslims has remained relatively low, but this has changed since the 2015 refugee crisis.

There are now about half a million Muslims in the capital of Greece following a series of migration waves and the arrival of thousands of families from the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent fleeing war and poverty.

Thrace is too far away for most families to be able to bury their dead there, and the cost of transporting the bodies is rare.

“Due to the high cost of transporting the dead to Thrace, the number of Muslim burials in Athenian Orthodox cemeteries has increased in recent years,” Rezai Mohtar, president of the Afghan community, told a news conference last week.

The Covid-19 epidemic has made things even more difficult for grieving families, he said.

According to Javed Aslam, a prominent member of the Pakistani community in Greece, Muslim immigrants have long called the tombs of Athens.

This general view, taken on May 10, in Schisto, on the western border of Athens, shows the expected location of a Muslim tomb next to the Orthodox tomb. -AFP

Section of Islam

Municipal official Stamatatos pointed out that in 2016 the Greek Orthodox Church donated 20,000 square meters of land to Schisto cemetery in a section reserved for Muslims.

But a legal dispute with the contractor delayed the completion of the project.

A senior official in Greece’s education department, which is also responsible for religious affairs, said the project had been approved and would “continue with the growing number of Muslims in Athens”.

But the rights groups and the main opposition group Syriza are less optimistic, pointing to the current rigorous anti-immigration government amid repeated allegations of illegal logging across the country’s borders.

“When it comes to respecting the rights of migrants and refugees, the Greek context is bad,” said Syriza MP Giorgos Psychogios.

The first official mosque in Athens opened in November 2020, taking more than a decade to complete after receiving fierce opposition from the Orthodox Church, as well as from ethnic groups.

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