Elsa Barron Greece

For the first time in more than 200 years, the faithful gather at a public mosque in Athens, Greece.

A major gateway for westward migrants along the Mediterranean coast, Athens has seen unprecedented waves of migration in recent years, including the arrival of more than 800,000 predominately Muslim refugees since 2015.

Drawing on communal memories of the Ottoman Empire and its colonizing forces, many Greeks, who comprise the 95% Greek Orthodox majority, view present-day migrants through the same lens. This shared history is held up as a reason why the growing Muslim community in Athens is not more widely received by prevailing religious and government officials, despite their increased numbers and, in turn, opportunities for interreligious dialogue.

“The interaction between the Christian west and the Islamic east plays out in Athens in a unique way,” says Kellogg International Scholar Elsa Barron, junior biology and peace studies major at the University of Notre Dame and two-time grant recipient from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. “There's a huge opportunity to study Islam in Europe as part of an expanding research frontier.”

Barron’s research on the political and religious dynamics surrounding the construction of the first official mosque in Athens was sparked while analyzing interviews with refugees to assess religion’s role on migrant assimilation and integration into Europe. Faculty fellow Rev. Robert Dowd, CSC, founding director of the Kellogg’s Ford Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity and assistant provost for internationalization with Notre Dame International, serves as Barron's ISP Advisor, mentoring her in research projects, including her transcription analysis.

“Elsa’s research reveals a great deal of variation in the extent to which the Greek community promotes empathy with migrants, and we are currently grappling with plausible explanations for this variation,” says Dowd. “Her research probe in Athens builds on her work with me in the Kellogg International Scholars Program on religion and the integration of migrants.”

Barron says, “For a large European city, Athens is an anomaly. My research attempts to uncover why this city doesn’t have an official mosque, despite having one of the largest populations of Muslim refugees in Europe.”

Although the Greek government announced in 2002 that it would address the lack of an official mosque and open one in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the plan was ultimately abandoned. When the Greek government renewed its efforts to begin construction of a mosque in 2013 – spurred in part by the advocacy of the Muslim Association of Greece, an NGO working to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims – it revealed deep divisionswithin Greek communities.

Since then, the project has been delayed numerous times for a variety of reasons, including court appeals and campaigns led by the Popular Association – Golden Dawn, a far-right political party with an anti-immigrant platform. The early inrush of Muslim migrants into Greece at this time did little to quell concerns about growing Muslim influence. With construction complete, the mosque’s opening has received further delays, including two in 2019. One concern has been security, as the mosque site has suffered multiple incidents of vandalism over the past five years. A point of contention for Muslims has been the decision to not include minarets or loudspeakers to call Muslims to prayer, seen as a concession to protesters and the Greek public.

As one of only a few capitals left in the European Union without an official mosque, and the only one with more than 100,000 Muslim inhabitants, Athens’s estimated population of 300,000 Muslims are relegated to practice their faith, such as salat prayers ritually performed five times daily, in underground garages or basements called “designated prayer spaces.” The absence of official places of worship is not just a minor inconvenience, but a reality that Muslims might confront multiple times each day in Athens.

During Barron's first winter researching migration and religion in Athens, funded by a Nanovic Institute student grant, she investigated how Muslim migrants and native Greeks view the construction of the mosque. Her findings suggest that for Muslim migrants the presence of a physical mosque in Athens is a welcoming sign, if not one of government support, and gives them a place to anchor their life in a new country. On the other side of the study, the largely conservative Greek population, of whom 65% hold unfavorable views of Muslims, proved wary of the increase of Muslims in Athens and unlikely to support the mosque’s construction.

Barron’s research seeks to bring clarity to an otherwise unsettled dialogue. Using a series of semi-structured interviews, she engaged with migrants, those who work with migrants, NGOs like the Muslim Association of Greece, religious organizations, and contacts gathered from Golden Dawn to better understand the diverse perspectives on Islam in Athens and the possible implications of this new mosque.

One concern for some in the Greek government is establishing a system to regulate the funding streams of the migrant Muslim community, which often come from outside countries, such as Saudi Arabia or other places that the government deems as “risk areas.” An additional political hurdle Barron identified was that, despite a public desire to regulate the growing Muslim community, the lack of official prayer spaces and religious structures creates a barrier to establishing interreligious dialogue at the bureaucratic and administrative levels. Ironically, Barron recalls a striking interview with a Muslim migrant who – skeptical of the government's agenda – expressed that religious infrastructure may facilitate the control of migrants who practice religions that do not immediately harmonize with local customs. However, the hope remains that a public mosque will cultivate Islamic discourse between the Muslim migrant community and native Greeks and may, in turn, lead to peacebuilding over time.

“The inherent political power that the Islamic community would receive through state recognition – being able to send a delegate to talk with representatives, and the dignity of having a space – unfortunately doesn’t come without reservation from the Greek community,” says Barron.

Back at Notre Dame, Barron explores interreligious dialogue through coursework, such as Keough School professor A. Rashied Omar’s class, “Islamic Ethics of War and Peace.” As Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, Professor Omar impels Notre Dame students not to view Islam as a threat or religion that tended towards violence but rather a peaceful movement. In dialogue with Professor Omar, Barron developed the interviews from her first trip into a capstone research paper on how religious migrants and religious leaders in Athens were attempting to live out Islamic ethics, evidenced in the mosque’s construction and peacebuilding efforts.

“Not infrequently in over a decade of teaching at Notre Dame, I have found inspiration from an outstanding student. During the spring semester of 2019, that motivation arose from the brilliance of Elsa Barron,” says Omar. “That semester, Elsa crafted an excellent research essay that weaved together the theoretical perspectives she learned from my course with the raw data she collected during her interviews and field research in Athens.”

Drawing inspiration from Professor Omar’s class, Barron expanded her research on the mosque in Athens to encompass its implications on peacebuilding in Greece and returned to Athens, on a second Nanovic grant, to research how the construction of the public mosque could help resolve political problems faced by Athens’s Muslim community, quell fears of concerned Greek citizens, and potentially foster interfaith peacebuilding through dialogue, integration, and education.

“A public mosque provides a dignified place of worship for Muslims, support to the religious minority and most vulnerable in Greek society, and augments the safety of Greek residents, Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” says Barron. “From religious services in the local language to opportunities for the Greek education system to become more comprehensive and inclusive, the relationship between the Greek government and an Islamic institution in the city builds the foundation for many possible integration programs, which is an essential step for peacebuilding in any community.”

While Barron acknowledges some initial difficulty arranging interviews, she attests that the Orthodox and Muslim communities welcomed her with what she describes as “overwhelming hospitality” throughout her projects. She was delighted on more than one occasion to accept invitations into homes for meals and to receive thorough tours of libraries, meeting rooms, and prayer spaces. One invitation from a representative of the Muslim community included not just an invitation into her home for a meal, but also a conversation with the president and co-founder of the Muslim Association of Greece, Naim el-Ghandour.

“Currently, it is incredibly difficult to locate and contact underground prayer spaces, imams, and even the Muslim Association of Greece, if one is not already in the network of Muslim believers. An official mosque would reverse that reality.”

Barron recalls a singular moment in her fieldwork when she witnessed a crowd of Muslims pouring into one of the more than one hundred unofficial underground mosques in the city on an unmarked, residential street. Just before, Barron expressed her intent to find an underground prayer space to a local shopkeeper, to which the shopkeeper responded: “Good luck finding one of those.”

The need is evident. Although it is estimated that the public mosque can accommodate just 300 men and 50 women at a time, and even with concerns voiced by members of the Greek Orthodox and Muslim communities over certain concessions, Elsa Barron sees the opening of the mosque as a critical step forward. Barriers may still exist, but Barron suggests that, with the right leadership, a mosque in Athens might pave the way for fruitful religious dialogue in a city that has long been mono-religious, affording Greek leaders and citizens alike the means to understand Islam in a modern context, and the chance to turn painful historic memories into peaceful partnerships for the future.

With invitations to intern at the US Mission to the United Nations and to present her research at the 15th Annual Meeting of the Minds conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Barron is driven to continue making contributions to human rights and peace studies.

“The projects were incredibly meaningful to my studies and allowed me to witness the interplay between religion, migration, and identity in Europe,” says Barron. “Nanovic research opportunities have brought my studies to life.”

Increasing understanding of migration and the rising tides of displaced persons is a priority research area at the Keough School of Global Affairs. The Nanovic Institute for European Studies, an integral unit within the Keough School, is dedicated to the development of students who seek to answer the most pressing questions facing Europe today by offering a comprehensive suite of research grant programs and coursework.

This article originally appeared at nanovic.nd.edu.