“It’s a huge problem,” Mr. Zaki said. “We are not 10 or 20 people,” he said, referring to the roughly 200,000 Muslims from countries including Pakistan, Syria, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who live in Athens. “Where will all these people go?”
“I hurt for those who come to pray and are turned away,” he added.
Around 70 venues operate as unofficial prayer sites, many without fire-safety certificates. Though 10 of those venues have secured permits to continue operating, the remainder must either obtain permits or close, the government says.
Among those now permitted is the Greek-Arab Educational and Cultural Center, which opened in 2007 in a former textiles factory in a southern suburb with funding from a Saudi businessman.
The Greek government considers the new Athens mosque to be a pioneering project.
“It’s a very sensitive experiment as we’re trying to make sure that all Muslims have a say in the running of the mosque without any countries getting involved,” said George Kalantzis, the general secretary of the Education and Religious Affairs Ministry.
The aim was to have the mosque under state control, Mr. Kalantzis said, adding that a site overseen by the state was less likely to become a breeding ground for radicalism.
Some Muslims say the new mosque signals a welcome shift in Greek attitudes.
Muhammad Shabir Dhama, a 60-year-old restaurant owner from Pakistan, was positively beaming when interviewed on the mosque’s grounds on the day the lockdown was announced.
“I have no words,” he said, wearing prayer robes, a face mask and protective shoe coverings. “I’d like to say a big thank you to the Greek government and to everyone who helped make this happen.”