Ali M Latifi Last Modified: 25 Jul 2013 12:14
Church offers services to Afghan and Iranian migrants, but some worry they're a smokescreen for proselytising.
Some churches in Greece provide food and language lessons to asylum seekers [EPA]
Athens, Greece - During Sunday mass in Athens, a small but spirited segment of a 40-person congregation sing “glory unto your pure soul, o God! Glory unto you! Glory unto you father!”
Every now and then the singing, backed by a Yamaha keyboard and a zarb, goblet drum, is interrupted by feedback from the microphone and the static caused by adjusting cables connected to a large black amplifier.
“For the past two weeks we’ve been having audio difficulties. It would seem someone doesn’t want us to sing, but we will continue because our hearts are full of God,” Reza, one of the three men leading the hymns says.
The simple room - plain white walls in place of stained glass, rows of plastic chairs where pews would be and giant dark brown curtains used to conceal the inside from view - is in stark contrast to the mediterranean architecture of the many Greek Orthodox churches that line the city.
The congregants too, are anything but the average site at a house of worship in the only nation where the Eastern Orthodox Church is recognised as the state religion.
Of the more than three dozen men, women and children gathered at the nondescript centre, little more than a handful are Westerners born into Christianity. The rest are Iranian or Afghan asylum seekers, all born into Islam.
The layout of the gathering still mimics some Islamic practices. Women, many still donning hijabs, largely sit by themselves with their children in the back. Shouts of “Amen!” are replaced with the Islamic “Amin” as men and women raise their opened arms into the air.
Though the first three rows of 18 chairs are full of people who sway their hands and ebulliently sing along to the hymns translated into Persian, the majority of those in the back simply stare at the lyrics written out in Persian characters.
The few signs of Christendom - a tapestry of deep reds, browns and blues depicting various stories from the Bible, a black-and-white poster with illustrations of the life of Jesus Christ as told in the Bible and the cross on the wooden podium upon hich Reza and others preach.
“I am certain God loves this place because you all come with good hearts,” a woman in her mid-thirties with dark brown curly hair and a cropped black shirt says in Farsi as she prepares to read a verse from the enjil Isa Masih, Bible of Jesus Christ.
Fear of retribution
Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, due to fear of retribution from far-right groups or angry family members back home, those who attend the Sunday Mass and other similar gatherings at the centre say they come for a variety of reasons.
“Why should it be odd, it’s a house of God,” Ahmad, an Afghan asylum seeker in his mid-twenties says when asked if he feels any sort of tension in such an environment.
“It’s a house of God”, he repeats.
Just because Khomeini says something stupid or because the Taliban blow people up in Afghanistan does not mean you should abandon your faith.
Amin, asylum seeker in Greece
Staring out on to the alleyway directly in front of the centre’s now open door, Ahmad solemnly says “we are fed here”.
For asylum seekers, who say they can make no more than 10 euros per day by doing manual labour, the centre is a vital source of sustenance.
Rami, 17, wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, looks up from his plate and says: “I listen, but it all goes in one ear and immediately out the other.”
Though he says “it’s all about the food”, Rami also points to another feature that sets this centre apart from the estimated 10 others like it around the Greek capital – the Christian pastors are Iranian.
As the religious service ends, the chairs are quickly rearranged around plastic foldout tables and groups of Afghans and Iranians cluster around to reminisce and joke in their common language.
In this group of people often left with nothing to do but wait for kachakbar-ha, smugglers, to provide them with an exit plan, the sense of community is evident.
For people constantly fearful of attacks by fascist groups the sense of togetherness in a protected and enclosed area is a rarity.
“What can we do? This is our life. I have to feed my family somehow,” Massoud a slightly bearded man in his late thirties says in a Kabuli accent.
But for some, the religious preaching proves to be too much.
Ali Raza, 24, from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, says when he first arrived in Athens three weeks ago, he went to two similar centres.
Unlike this centre, which was started by an Iranian convert to christianity now living in Italy, the ones Ali attended were run by Americans.
“They would give you food. Sometimes up to twice per day and even help you with your English.”
Food and anger
But for Ali, a Shia who spent several years in Pakistan and Iran, the kindness of the food and language lessons were betrayed by the rhetoric of the volunteers at the centre.
“They would say ‘what religion do the Taliban practice?’ ‘What religion do they use as their basis for their attacks?’ ‘When they blow themselves up, they say Allahu Akbar.’”
Fed up by his second visit, Ali decided to confront the volunteers in his broken English. “Tell me, what insufficiencies does Islam have and how is Christianity any better?” he asked on his second and last visit to such a centre.
Reza, who at 28 leads the congregation, is not naive to the fact that many of those in attendance are lured by the promise of food.
“For me it is not important if people come for food or Masih, Christ. I am here to serve God.”
Reza says Christ gave him “freedom” and made him “anew” after years of suffering from an “intense” addiction to heroin.
In fact, so deep was his respect for Christ that in 2009 Reza went to the UNHCR to retract a statement he made two years earlier that could have helped him gain entry into Canada.
In front of an astounded panel of UN workers Reza said simply “I lied”.
“The statement I made in 2007 that I was a Christian and facing difficulties in Iran because of it was a lie. I only said it to go to Canada. Having now truly accepted the mercy of Christ, I cannot in good conscience travel to Canada on a lie.”
The UN workers, who told Reza they had just completed a two-year-long process to gain him entry into Canada were at a loss.
“‘But you are a Christian now. It’s not a lie now’”, they told him, fearful he was throwing away two years of effort.
Unwilling to budge, Reza, who had been caught by Turkish police en route to Italy in 2007, was sent back to Iran. It was there that he said his devotion to Christ was tested for nearly a year.
“People said kill him. Burn him. But God is more great than any fear,” Reza said of the threats he faced in the Islamic Republic.
Of the reaction by his deeply religious family in Iran, he said: “my father has been to Mecca more than 10 times”. Despite their deep-seated devotion to the Shia faith, Reza said his family in Tabriz “see that Christ has delivered me [from a life of addiction]”.
Though Reza maintains that he still has faith in Islam and that his preaching is in no way meant as an affront to the religion of his birth, 19-year-old Parwiz has a different view of the religion espoused by the Islamic Republic.
After five months of attendance, Parwiz said “the truth” became evident to him.
“If you read the works of Khomeini you will think all Islam is a joke,” Parwiz, who has been in Greece for two years, said.
But Amin, 17, who sits across from Parwiz, wearing a green and white striped shirt, said it’s not that simple.
“Just because Khomeini says something stupid or because the Taliban blow people up in Afghanistan does not mean you should abandon your faith. The Taliban and Khomeini are not Islam,” Amin says as he continues eating the large plate of pasta in front of him.