Athens: Muslim refugees from Athens seek their own cemetery

SCHISTO (Greece): Standing by the tiny grave of her five-year-old son in the Orthodox Christian cemetery of Schisto on the outskirts of Athens, Esfandiyar Fagkiri says she feels “double pain”.
Not only did he lose one of his five children, but the Afghan family cannot mourn him according to Muslim religious ritual because the cemetery is Christian.
Hasibollah Fagkiri was hit and fatally injured by a truck in January 2021 while playing with other children near the entrance to the Malakassa migrant camp, north of Athens, where he had been living with his family since September 2020.
NGOs and local authorities blamed the accident on poor security conditions at the camp and said it should be closed.
After burying their son, the Fagkiris were shocked to learn that his body was to be exhumed after three years, in 2024.
This is standard procedure in Greek cemeteries due to a chronic lack of space, particularly in the greater Athens area where more than a third of the country’s population lives, which has more than 10 million inhabitants.
But for Hasibollah’s grieving family, this is unthinkable.
Islam does not allow exhumation or cremation and in the Muslim religion the body remains buried forever, Fagkiri pointed out.
But for people without a paid family burial, “exhumation after three years is mandatory,” insisted Dimosthenis Stamatatos, head of an association of municipalities near the Schisto cemetery.
Growing numbers
The remains of the dead are often kept in a special annex of the cemetery church.
Greece is a predominantly Christian Orthodox country and Muslim cemeteries are found only in Thrace, a region in the northeast of the country near the Greek-Turkish border, 750 kilometers (466 miles) from Athens.
The region is home to a centuries-old Muslim minority, a legacy of the presence of the Ottoman Empire in the region.
In Athens, the number of Muslims was negligible, but that changed following the 2015 refugee crisis.
There are now around half a million Muslims in the Greek capital after successive waves of migration and the arrival of thousands of families from the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent fleeing war and poverty .
Thrace is too remote for most families to bury their dead there, and the cost of moving bodies is prohibitive.
“Given the high cost of transferring the dead to Thrace, the number of Muslim burials in Orthodox cemeteries in Athens has increased in recent years,” Afghan community president Rezai Mohtar told a conference. press last week.
The Covid-19 pandemic 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 migrant communities have long called for a cemetery in Athens.
City official Stamatatos pointed out that in 2016, the Orthodox Church of Greece donated 20,000 square meters (five acres) of land to Schisto Cemetery for a Muslim-only section.
But a legal dispute with the contractor delayed the completion of the project.
A senior official from Greece’s education ministry, which also oversees religious matters, said the project had been given the green light and “will be carried out given the large number of Muslims in Athens”.
But rights groups and the main left-wing opposition party Syriza are not so optimistic, pointing to the current Conservative government’s strong anti-migration rhetoric amid recurring allegations of pushbacks of illegal migrants at the country’s borders.
“As far as respect for the rights of migrants and refugees is concerned, the context in Greece is negative,” said Syriza MP Giorgos Psychogios.
Athens’ first official mosque opened in November 2020, taking more than a decade to complete after facing strong opposition from the Orthodox Church, as well as nationalist groups.

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