How a Greek University is Supporting Thessaloniki’s Muslims


THESSALONIKI, Greece — Visitors to this city, also known as Thessalonica, see a vivacious community of Greeks as well as historic Greek Orthodox churches scattered around the metroplex.

Catching sight of active mosques is a rarity despite the fact that the city at times was filled with Muslims in centuries past and a site of bad blood, conflict and animosity at times between Muslim, Christian and Jewish people over the centuries.

Some Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities in Thessaloniki also believe the city has found some harmony between Abrahamic faiths in the past and can do so again. And one such olive branch toward religious understanding is taking root at the School of Theology in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, which is the first Greek university to implement an academic program on Islamic studies.

A religious history

In Thessaloniki, a place named by TIME Magazine as one of the world’s top places to visit, visitors find no active mosques, which leaves Muslims living in the city with no place to gather or worship, said Ioannis Kiourtsoglou, a local tour guide.

Thessaloniki is Greece’s second-largest city with a population of around 814,000, right behind Athens. Thessaloniki was founded more than 2,300 years ago, in 316 B.C., and named for a sister of Alexander the Great.

It also became an early center of Christianity as one of the early Christian church locations planted and developed by the Apostle Paul, with his letters to that church becoming the New Testament books of First and Second Thessalonians.

The city was also part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire, the second-largest city after Constantinople (now Istanbul), around 904 when the city was sacked by the Abbasid Caliphate, freeing Muslim prisoners, taking loot and capturing 22,000 citizens. After a series of attacks, overlords and harassment by various groups of Arabs, Bulgarians, Normans and others, the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1430, and one-fifth of its people were enslaved.

The city was also the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and became the headquarters for the Ottoman Liberty Society, a faction of the Young Turk movement that initiated the Turkish revolution in 1908. The city remained under Turkish rule for nearly five centuries until it passed back to the Kingdom of Greece in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

The 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange forced 1.6 million people to leave their homes and become refugees: 1.2 million Greeks leaving lands that became modern Turkey and 400,000 Muslims leaving lands — including Thessaloniki — that became modern Greece.

Many Jewish people also lived in Thessaloniki at various points in the city’s history. And during World War II, the city was captured by Germany’s Nazi military, and most of the city’s estimated 60,000 Jews were deported and murdered in concentration camps.

There is no confirmed data on how many Muslims live in the city today, but according to Kiourtsoglou, they are difficult to find and a large population of them reside in cities near Athens. The U.S. State Department estimates that Muslims make up only 2% of Greece’s 10.6 million people, while somewhere between 80% and 90% identify as Greek Orthodox Christians.

Ongoing tensions over immigration

Kiourtsoglou said animosity against Turks remains, and xenophobia is usually expressed by nationalists in Thessaloniki influenced by religion, politics and history. Greece has even built a wall along the border of Turkey to keep refugees out, something that Kiourtsoglou believes is “stupid for many different reasons.”

Meanwhile, Greece has the largest coastline in Europe and, given its geography, is often the entry point for migrants from Syria, Turkey, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. In recent years, the European Union and aid organizations spend time and money bolstering Turkey’s role to humanely keep migrants out of Europe. And the same organizations fund, guide and chide Greece in its role of blocking, receiving, processing and housing migrants.

Elections in Greece this week underscored the country’s desire to protect its borders as Greeks reelected Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the center-right New Democracy party, which promised to extend the wall along the Greek-Turkish border and to continue stopping boats from carrying migrants into the European Union.

“We are humanitarians but not naive,” the new migration minister, Dimitris Kairidis, told reporters hours after Mitsotakis’ new government was sworn in. He promised to continue a “strict but fair” policy toward migration and attempts at illegal entry into the country.

An experiment in religious pluralism

The School of Theology in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki considers Islam equally worthy of study alongside any other religion they teach, including Greek Orthodox Christianity. Greek Orthodox Christianity is the most prominent religion in Greece and closely connected with all aspects of Greek language, history and identity.

Nikos Maghioros, head of the school of theology, helped implement the Islamic studies undergraduate course in 2016 at the university, despite disagreements when the idea was presented.

“It was not an easy task because there is a kind of conservatism,” he said. “Bringing Islamic studies in — let’s say in a Christian environment — was a kind of pioneer. So there was a kind of reaction, but in the end we managed to start it and to have our first graduates.”

Many Greeks still bear resentment for historical injustices done to their people and homeland in the name of Islam over the centuries, including the most recent move by Turkey to appropriate the famous Hagia Sophia Christian Church in Istanbul into a mosque in 2020.

Maghioros suggests harmony only happens if parties start to work toward tolerance and respect. He said the Greek state supported the program at the university. Discussion between the minister of education and the faculty helped establish the program. He said usually 50 students are enrolled in the Islamic studies program, but they have seen a decrease in recent years. Most of the students are from Greece. Professors don’t ask the religious background of the students but know there are a few Muslim students in the program.

Despite no active mosques operating in Thessaloniki, the theology department has a space for Muslims to pray in the school.

“So Muslim students can follow their prayers at the faculty,” Maghioros said. “They usually come every Friday. We also have a chapel for Christians.” 

At the university, the department is referred to as a faculty.

Ramadan took place from March to early April and was a month-long observation by Muslims to pray, fast and reflect. This is the most sacred month for Muslims, and the small community in Thessaloniki was able to do this in the theology building.

“They had all their celebrations here,” Maghioros said. “They were talking about Muslims and students in the university but also some Muslims who are ex-students from the university as well as an imam.”

An imam is the worship leader of a mosque and in the university, the imam is a veterinarian who was a previous student.

When it comes to negative sentiment toward Muslims in Thessaloniki, Maghioros said that is something he and others are working to minimize. He said they prefer to promote and pursue religious tolerance and understanding despite centuries of conquest, slavery and ill will between Christians in Greece and Muslims from the Ottoman Empire and other civilizations.

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