ATHENS - Plans to build a mosque in Athens to fulfil the religious needs of a growing Muslim community is sparking tension in Greece and revealing deep divisions in the debts-ridden country.
"It's very important for us that the mosque is built, Shabaz Ahamed, a Pakistani Muslim, told Reuters.
We would feel like we live in a free country, we would feel safe.
The Greek government launched a tender in May to build a mosque in a disused naval base in Votanikos, a rundown industrial neighborhood lined with car dealerships and factories.
Local media say the new mosque, which will hold about 400 worshippers, will not have a minaret so as to blend in with the environment and not resemble a mosque.
But the plan has angered far-right groups, which vowed to block the building of the mosque.
The far-right Golden Dawn party, which is suspected of attacks against immigrants, said it will "fight until the bitter end" to block the mosque plan.
One local bishop, Seraphim, has also taken the plans to build the mosque to Greece's highest administrative court, the Council of State. A ruling is not expected for months.
Opponents say Athens, kept afloat by an international bailout, cannot spare the almost one million euros it will cost to build the mosque, given that Greece is in a sixth year of recession, with record high unemployment and sinking living standards.
"There's money to build a mosque but there's no money for Greeks to live with dignity," Golden Dawn, which polls show is the third most popular party in Greece, said in a statement.
Protests have been gathering steam outside the planned site at the naval base in Votanikos.
"If you want a mosque, build it in parliament!" chanted participants in a protest led by the far-right National Front movement.
Flyers depicting a mosque in a circle with a line through it were strewn across the floor.
"It's not exactly the best time to go ahead with it right now," said Theodore Couloumbis of the ELIAMEP foreign policy think tank.
"The country has plenty of instability of its own due to the economic crisis".
Athens has come under fire by human rights groups such as Amnesty International for being one of the few European capitals without a mosque.
Repeated plans for a mosque in Athens began in earnest in 1880, with an act of parliament, but all fell through, including one timed for the 2004 Olympic Games.
Reports in local media that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered to fund a mosque in Athens have also sparked anger in Greece, which spend four centuries under Turkish Ottoman rule.
But supporters defend the mosque plans to help Muslims, like other Greeks, to fulfil their religious needs.
"Athens needs a mosque because there are Muslims living here - that's why," Athens Mayor Yiorgos Kaminis, a leftist, told Reuters.
He added that Greece had to protect the right to religious freedom under its constitution.
"You buy a maisonette in (the Athens suburb of) Chalandri and it costs 500,000 euros and the country can't afford to build a mosque?" he asked.
"It's not about money. I didn't see us doing anything when we had money."
Greek Muslims, who account for nearly 1.3 percent of the country's 10.7 million population, have long called for building a grand mosque in Athens to accommodate the religious needs of the growing Muslim minority.
Despite objections from its powerful Orthodox Church, Greece had pledged to build a mosque in Athens to serve the city's growing Muslim minority.
But the crunching economic crisis, coupled with public enmity associating mosques with the Ottoman presence, has prevented the pledge from being translated into action.
Muslim groups estimate more than 200,000 Muslims from countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh live in Athens alone.
Racially-motivated attacks have risen to alarming levels during the crisis, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, which said the authorities were doing little to tackle the problem.
At least one informal mosque has been set on fire. On another, someone has scrawled profanities in black paint.
"This place used to be packed but these days people are scared to even go out to pray," Pakistani taxi driver Muhammad Zafeer said, as Muslim men long traditional robes and colorful caps prepared for Friday prayers behind the steel-grilled windows of a former factory.
"Greece has to decide if it will be democratic or if it will go back to the Middle Ages.
Decked with minarets two centuries ago, Athens has not had a functioning mosque since the end of Ottoman rule in the early 1800s.
About 130 windowless, airless basements or warehouses in Athens currently serve as makeshift mosques for an estimated 200,000 Muslims in the Greek capital.
Tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants perform prayers in private homes and have had to travel hundreds of kilometers to northern Greece for weddings, burials and other ceremonies.The Orthodox Church has for years insisted that Greeks were not ready to see a minaret in downtown Athens.