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Will Greece's New Government Help The Muslim Minority Integrate?


This week, NPR has been exploring what life is like for Muslims in Europe at a time when the image of Muslims has been hijacked by violent extremists. This morning, we travel to a part of Greece where you can find working mosques with minarets and a community of Muslims with deep roots in this largely Orthodox Christian country. Geopolitics have isolated these Muslims for decades. But now they're hoping the new Greek government, led by leftist atheists, will help them survive. Here's Joanna Kakissis.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Xanthi is a small cobblestone city at the foot of the Rhodope mountains that divide Greece and Bulgaria. With a history dating to the late 800s, it's known for its Byzantine churches and Carnival celebration.


KAKISSIS: It's also home to one of the oldest communities of Muslims in Europe. About a third of the roughly 140,000 Muslims in northeastern Greece live in the greater Xanthi area.

SANBAN LOREMSI: (Singing in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: Inside one of the city's mosques, Sanban Loremsi (ph) leads a prayer for about 20 retired men. Afterwards, the tiny, clean-shaven imam fills me in on the mosque's history.

LOREMSI: (Through interpreter) This mosque is actually 400 years old. It's been here since Ottoman times, just like us. We are not immigrants. Our roots are here.

KAKISSIS: Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and destroyed most Islamic architecture, including mosques. But this area didn't become part of Greece until 1920. Three years later, a treaty called for the protection of the Muslim minority, says Xanthi's elected Mufti, Ahmet Mete.

AHMET METE: (Through interpreter) We're proud that we live in Greece. But we want Greece and the whole world to know who we are. I am a Muslim. And I am a Turk.

KAKISSIS: Historic tensions with Turkey and the strong influence of the Greek Orthodox Church isolated the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority. Decades ago, Muslims could not build their own houses or open businesses. They weren't admitted to Greek universities and were forced to study in Turkey, which sometimes led to them losing their Greek citizenship. Until the mid-1990s, there was even a military checkpoint that blocked access to Muslim villages, as Huseyin Zeybek explains.

HUSEYIN ZEYBEK: (Through interpreter) And after midnight, until 7 a.m., no one was allowed in or out of those villages no matter what. Some paid with their lives for this. Women hemorrhaging while they were in labor - they died.

KAKISSIS: Zeybek is a pharmacist in Xanthi and a parliamentary deputy for Syriza, the leftist party now governing Greece.

ZEYBEK: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Zeybek says he hopes this new government of secularists will be more accommodating to Muslims. He believes a good start would be more money for the schools here. Their poor quality has meant that Muslim students struggle to gain admission to Greek universities.

DIVAN KURAK: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: But one schoolteacher, Divan Kurak (ph), says the government must fix the economy first. The lack of jobs in Greece remains the biggest problem for Muslims and Christians alike. He says that nearly all of his students' fathers have been forced to seek work abroad in Germany. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Xanthi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.