Religion

Eid prayers held in a historic former mosque in northern Greece for the first time in 100 years

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THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — The Stars of David adorning the balconies along the top of the building catch the first glimmers of the dawn light as worshipers pass through the gates of the historic Yeni Cami, or New Mosque, for morning prayers.

Wednesday marked the first time since the 1920s that the building — originally erected for a community of Jewish converts to Islam at a time when the city of Thessaloniki was a cultural melting pot within the Ottoman Empire — was being used for mass prayers during Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday at the end of the monthlong fasting period of Ramadan.

“This is a beautiful thing, it’s the first time we feel this, we didn’t even know this mosque existed,” said Ismael Bedredin, a member of Greece’s Muslim minority who was among about 70 worshipers at the morning prayers. “Even though I’ve been living here for 63 years, it’s the first time I see it. …. We were told it’s opening its gates for the first time in 100 years, and that is an exceptionally beautiful thing.”

Built in 1902 by Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli, the landmark building tucked down a narrow street in the center of the city stopped being used as a mosque in the 1920s.

The community it was built for — Jewish converts to Islam known as Donmeh — were caught up in the 1923 forcible population exchange between Greece and Turkey, when Muslims living in Greece were sent to Turkey in exchange for Orthodox Christians living in Turkey. Like many mosques in Greece, the building’s use changed several times over the decades. It briefly served as a shelter for refugees from the population exchange before being converted into an archaeological museum, which it remained for nearly the next 40 years.

The opening of the Yeni Cami for Ramadan prayers sends “a very good message, which is there is no contradiction being Muslims and being citizens,” said Taha Abdelgalil, the imam who led the prayer. “There is no contradiction between opening such (a) historical place and in the same time being proud of the history of the country and its independence.”

The operation of mosques in Greece has often been controversial.

The country’s population is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, with the Muslim community largely consisting of migrants and visitors, as well as a small Muslim minority in northeastern Greece who were exempt from the 1923 population exchange. In the Greek capital, Athens, Muslims had relied on informal prayer rooms until 2020, when the city’s first state-sponsored mosque first began operating.

Thessaloniki’s Yeni Cami, a two-story building, combines Islamic tradition with the architectural trends of the turn of the previous century, with a nod to the former Jewish faith of its original community: six-pointed Stars of David adorn both the exterior balconies and much of the interior.

Restored in 1986, the building, which features clock towers on its corners, now serves as a municipal cultural exhibition venue. Workers covered displays that were part of an exhibition ahead of Wednesday’s prayers.

About 70 worshipers — a mix of visiting tourists from Turkey, members of Greece’s Muslim minority, overseas students studying in Thessaloniki and refugees who now call the northern Greek city home — attended the Eid prayers.

Indonesian student Prasherly Anura Dinda, 21, wasn’t aware of the building’s history but was happy to have somewhere to pray for Ramadan in the city where she is studying for a Master’s degree.

“I’m so grateful because it’s far from my hometown but here I can feel … the warmth of Ramadan,” she said.

Hilmi Yasaroglou, another member of Greece’s Muslim minority, said he was overjoyed to be able to pray in Yeni Cami when it hadn’t been used as a mosque for so long. “We’re very happy,” he said. “May we have peace among us and no hostility.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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