By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS (Reuters) - Pakistani taxi driver Muhammad Zafeer says he has to look over his shoulder when he goes to pray in Athens, where racist attackers have targeted several of the many makeshift mosques set up in cramped garages or dingy warehouses.
So Greece's plan to build a state-funded mosque in the capital, more than a century in the making, comes as a relief, even if it will be housed in a disused naval base littered with weeds and rubble in a rundown neighborhood.
"This place used to be packed but these days people are scared to even go out to pray," said Zafeer, as Muslim men in 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," he said with a shrug.
Reviving the long-stalled project during Greece's worst peacetime economic crisis has divided a country that spent four centuries under Turkish Ottoman rule, where the Orthodox Church is powerful and hostility towards immigrants is rising.
Soon after the government launched a tender in May to build the mosque, the far-right Golden Dawn party, which denies accusations of links to attacks on immigrants but says it wants to "rid Greece of their stench", pledged to "fight until the bitter end" to block the plan.
One local bishop, Seraphim, was so furious he took the matter to Greece's highest administrative court, the Council of State. A ruling is not expected for months.
The mosque's critics say Athens, kept afloat by an international bailout, cannot spare the almost one million euros it will cost 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, a rundown industrial neighborhood lined with car dealerships and factories.
Led by the far-right National Front movement, flag-waving demonstrators including nuns and men in military-style shirts, chanted "If you want a mosque, build it in parliament!" at the first of the protests at the end of May.
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".
"RIVERS OF BLOOD"
In the port of Piraeus, where hundreds of Greek Orthodox faithful packed the 174-year-old Holy Trinity church to hear Bishop Seraphim deliver Sunday mass, 62-year-old retired naval captain Ioannis Kaniaros called the decision "provocative".
Seraphim, who is challenging the decision in court, says building a mosque is unconstitutional and part of a plan to "Islamise" Greece, a major gateway for Asian immigrants trying to enter the European Union each year.
"I want to emphasize that Athens is the only European capital that went through four centuries of slavery under Islam, and managed to free itself just 200 years ago by spilling rivers of blood," he said in an interview.
Greece is home to about 1 million immigrants, and groups like Golden Dawn say undocumented workers have pushed up crime and put a burden on state resources at a time of crisis.
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 United Nations' 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.
"It's very important for us that the mosque is built. We would feel like we live in a free country, we would feel safe", said Shabaz Ahamed, a Pakistani Muslim motioning to a security monitor installed in his makeshift mosque after a group of men stormed in hurling abuse and threats a few months ago.
The city, which has not had a formal mosque since Greece won independence from occupying Ottomans in 1832, has come under fire by human rights groups such as Amnesty International for being one of the few European capitals without one.
Repeated plans for a post-Ottoman 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 to his Greek counterpart Antonis Samaras during talks earlier this year have also angered some Greeks, who feel a mosque would represent a continuing Turkish presence in the country.
While relations between the two neighbors have warmed and natural disasters in both countries have brought them closer, the two rivals have a history of enmity and came to the brink of war on several occasions, most recently in 1996.
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 government has provided few details.
The office of architect Alexandros Tombazis, which will design the building next to an existing chapel with a bell-tower, declined to comment, saying it has been advised by officials not to because the issue is "too sensitive".
Analysts say it could help Greece as it tries to lure foreign investment to its battered economy from cash-rich Gulf Arab states such as Qatar, which has pledged to invest up to 1 billion euros in Greek companies.
"It could facilitate Arab money to enter the Greek market - especially moderate Arab," Couloumbis said.
Stavros Kalogiannis, the former deputy development minister who signed the decision to disburse the funds in May, denied there was external pressure to build the mosque and said simply that it was a project "that had matured".
The mosque's supporters say Athens has gone too long without one and that its 1 million euro price tag is relatively small.
"Athens needs a mosque because there are Muslims living here - that's why," Athens Mayor Yiorgos Kaminis, a leftist, told Reuters, adding 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."
(Additional reporting by Yorgos Karahalis; editing by Philippa Fletcher)