Islam, interment and Greece

Burying drowned migrants is part of a broader Greek problem

THE newly established graveyard, a short drive west of Mytilene port, is a desperately sad place. In the middle of an olive grove, there are dozens of mounds of crumbly earth, some created only a month ago, with markers offering perfunctory information about the people who lie underneath: a name, a date of death or discovery and a date of interment. Sometimes the name is not known.

The establishment of this ad hoc cemetery was a pragmatic solution to an acute problem. As of autumn last year, the accumulation of bodies of drowned migrants was stretching resources to the limit. The town morgue was full. So was a section of a Christian burial site, Saint Panteleimon, which the church, in response to the refugee crisis, had set aside for Islamic interment. (In Greece, the disposal of the dead is co-managed, in practice, by local bureaucrats and the Greek Orthodox clergy.) Bodies were being stored in a refrigerated container outside the hospital. And on October 28th, there was a massive shipwreck in which dozens of people, many of them children, drowned.

Around that time the municipality allocated some of its own land to a new burial ground. Shortly beforehand it had accepted the services of a Muslim prayer leader who was willing to carry out Islamic offices for the departed. Mustafa Dawa, a 30-year-old Egyptian, came to Greece a decade ago to study the language. Having studied Islamic law in his homeland, Mr Dawa says he was keen to provide some dignity to the interment of his co-religionists, and the municipality was grateful for his assistance. He has recently been helping NGOs on Lesbos and as a result has become the de facto imam of Mytilene. His task isn’t a pleasant one: after the shipwreck, he had to wash and wrap dozens of partially decomposed bodies in rapid succession to prepare them for their last resting place.

Nobody would claim that this is an ideal solution to the problem of handling migrants lost in the Aegean. Two British-based political scientists, one of them originally from Mytilene, have done extensive field work on the island and concluded that far more could be done to identify bodies, inform next-of-kin and allow relatives to be involved in interring or in some cases repatriating their loved ones’ remains. The mayor of Mytilene, Spyros Galinos, would probably say that he was doing his best in terrible circumstances: it was at his behest that an unusual act of prayer for the dead was held in the port last year, with Orthodox clergy, and then Muslims led by Mr Dawa, taking turns to intone their supplications for the departed.

But the whole question of interment in Greece, and of Islamic interment in particular, is hugely sensitive. Under the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923, the two countries decreed a swap of religious minorities, with limited exceptions. Muslims were allowed to remain in Greek Thrace, near the Turkish border, and Orthodox Christians were (in theory) allowed to stay in Istanbul and on two Turkish islands. Elsewhere there were deportations in both directions. Mytilene was at the front line of this process. Its own remaining Muslim population was deported in late 1923 and the island  took in thousands of Christian refugees from the neighbouring ports in Turkey. Until very recently, Lesbos had no Muslim cemeteries in active use for the simple reason that no Muslims lived or died there.

Then consider the situation in Athens. The capital has a de facto Muslim population of at least 300,000 but it has no authorised mosque (there are lots of informal prayer spaces) or Islamic cemetery. This means that when a Muslim dies in the city, the body has to be sent north to Thrace, where there are many Muslim graveyards, or else transported out of the country. Both options are expensive. Only on April 7th did the ruling Synod of the Greek Orthodox church agree to the creation of a two-hectare Muslim cemetery in the southwest of Athens. If the church is giving ground, literally, over Muslim burial, that could be because it has a bigger fight on its hands; it is strongly resisting the establishment of crematoria, whose use is forbidden in Greek Orthodox teaching, even though the country’s secular authorities are keen to make that facility available.

In any case, the fact that new Islamic burial grounds are being created in Greece, however simple and basic, is certainly a historical landmark. In 1923, the region’s affairs were settled by a vast separation between Christians and Muslims. In 2016, for better or worse, such a separation no longer seems possible, either of the living or the dead.


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