Islamic Religious Education and Teaching About Islam in Greece

Angeliki Ziaka and Marios Koukounaras Liagkis

State-Church Relations and the

Muslim Communities in Greece

State and Chtirch in Greece

Greece is a country which has, on the one hand, a secular character but on the other hand maintains traditional time-honoured relations between church and state. Orthodox Christianity has always played an important part in the cultural identity of Greek citizens ever since the foundation of the New Greek State was allied with religion. For this reason, Orthodox Christianity has been understood as a key factor in stimulating the Greek revolution, thereby facilitating liberation from the Ottoman Empire and, by extension, from Islam (Kitromilides, 2013).

According to the Greek Constitution (Art. 3), the Eastern Orthodox Church is the “prevailing religion” in Greece. This prevailing character is visible in several symbolic aspects: the Greek national flag shows a cross on it, the morning prayer takes place in schools, and the icon of Christ hangs in every classroom as well as in other state buildings. Furthermore, the Greek Orthodox Church has the legal status of a public person,1 which implies that the Church and its non-governmental organisations not only receive indirect state support, but also direct state support (Franken, 2016, 184-186). Schools of Theology in Higher Education are subsidised by the state and not by the Church.

The place of religion in education is determined by the Greek Constitution and the relationship between the Church and the state. Following the Greek Constitution (Article 16, §2), religious education (RE) is provided by the state, with the general aim being determined by the free “cultivation” of religious conscience. The Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs is responsible for the framework and content of RE and RE teacher training, as well as the appointment of teachers, which is exclusively under the jurisdiction of the state. RE in Greek state schools is taught for a period of ten years for one or two hours weekly, depending on the school level. It is a compulsory subject, with the possibility of opting out, but this possibility is used only by a

Islamic Religious Education in Greece 163 small number of students (0.5%-0.93% in the school year 2017-18). In state schools, there is no other type of RE organised for those who opt out, with the exception of the region of Western Thrace, where Islamic religious education (IRE), currently in the form of Islamic Religious Instruction (IRI), is also organised. The Church only has the right, according to Law 590/1977, to “check the dogmatic content of the primary and secondary education textbooks” of Greek RE, although the Church in many cases has intervened and pressured the state to take RE under its own control. It should be mentioned that the current curricula for Greek RE has been in force since the 2017-2018 school year and came about after a dialogue between the Greek state and the Orthodox Church, as well as with other religious communities.

An example of the current situation is the appeal by a conservative group of theologians, parents, and one bishop against the curricula to the Administrative High Court, which decided that RE in Greece should be “exclusively for Orthodox students” and should have a confessional and catechistical scope with the option of exemption according to the Greek Constitution (Articles 16, §2 and 13, § 1-2) “for reasons of religious conscience”. An appeal against the curricula also came from the Atheist Union of Greece but with a completely opposite demand (Markoviti, 2019, 43). This decision will probably open up the school to different Christian denominations and other religions since they can ask for other confessional RE subjects to be part of the school curriculum. Understandably the Ministry of Education is once again studying the regulatory framework of the matter in question since this raises the issue of a compulsory or non-compulsory RE, the introduction of an alternative subject, and other relevant issues. There has subsequently been a call for new RE curricula. This case at least addresses the fact that RE in Greek schools is a component of the constitutional statechurch relationship and also a controversial and highly debated topic, which is based not only on the relationship between the state and reli-gion(s) but also on human rights and teaching issues highlighted by the pluralistic conditions of Greek society.

Next to the “prevailing” Greek Orthodox Church, there are many “known” religions in Greece. The recent Law 4301/2014 offers the possibility of their recognition as religious legal persons. Article 13 directly recognises the Catholic Church and eight other religious communities (YPETH, 2018, 28-29; Franken, 2016, 185).2 As known religions, they get indirect state support (tax benefit only for the cult places), but no direct state support. The freedom of these religions and of other (non-recognised) religions is guaranteed in the first paragraphs of the 13th article of the Greek Constitution.

In the region of Western Thrace, indigenous Muslims live under a special legal status due to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), and they are defined and recognised as a Muslim minority. Accordingly, they enjoyspecial rights, such as the maintenance of the Sharia system of law (Hanafi school) in religious matters, family and inheritance law (Ziaka, 2013), and the organisation of bilingual (Greek/Turkish) minority education. This particular education “has been based, above all, on Articles 40 and 41 of the Treaty of Lausanne [...] In addition, a general law, namely Act 1566/85 ‘on the organisation of the General Education’, as well as a special law 252 implemented through a series of decrees of the Minister of National Education govern the structure, organisation and content of the minority education of Thrace.” (Tsitselikis, 2012, 480-481). In minority schools as well as in madrasas, and recently (2013) in state schools, IRE or IRI is organised.

The Muslim Communities in Greece

Today, the majority of Greek citizens (about 90%) are baptised regardless of whether they are religious or not, which expresses traditional rites and functions as symbols of national values and Greek identity, according to the Pew Research Center (2018). Notwithstanding this massive church membership, there is also a substantial number of Muslims living in Greece (about 5.7% according to the Pew Research Center [2017] or 3.5-4.7%, according to national statistics).3 Of these Muslims, only between 1% and 1.5% are defined as being indigenous, i.e., as Greek citizens who have lived in the Balkan region from the time of the Ottoman Empire and afterwards. The remaining Muslims are refugees and new immigrants, with different cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds within Islam. * In the case of indigenous Muslims there are, as in other Balkan countries, Muslims who are “Turkic”, “Pomaks”, and “Roma”, with their own linguistic families (Estatiev, 2019; see also the chapters on Bulgaria and Cyprus in this volume), but who also share the Turkish language in common, which is deemed a mother tongue for the majority. There are, however, also Muslim-Greek citizens of Western Thrace, who do not speak the Turkish language.

According to the last national census of 2011, the number of Muslims in Western Thrace has been estimated at about 114,000 to 120,000, in a total population within the Greek territory of nearly 11 million citizens (ELSTAT, 2011). They are mainly Sunni Muslims and account for approximately a third of the population of Western Thrace. There are also a few communities of Bektashi and Alevi Muslims in the mountain ranges in the Rodopi region (probably fewer than 4,000 individuals) who, due to historical circumstances and for reasons of safety, conceal their religious identity from the Sunni majority (Mavrommatis, 2008, 171-172). There are also around 3,700 indigenous Muslim Greek citizens on the islands of Rhodes and Kos.

The Muslim minority in Western Thrace, with its special legal status, enjoys the right to implement religious law (Sharia) for religious and family law relations, under the jurisdiction of the establishment of the

Muftiate (based in Komotini, Xanthi, and Didymoteiho) and the muftis, who are appointed by the Greek state and are civil servants (Art. 4, Law 147/1914, Law 1920/1991). Recently, the abovementioned legislation has been amended by Law 4511/2018 to resolve the major issue of the jurisdiction of the muftis of Thrace within the Greek legal order in a way that could reconcile their preservation with the need to institutionalise the right of “exit” of the Shari’a for members of the Muslim minority in Thrace who wish to make use of the provisions of the Civil Code (Papadopoulou, 2010; Koumoutzis and Papastylianos, 2019; Ziaka, 2018).

Next to the indigenous Muslim minority, the so-called old Islam, there are also “new” Muslim communities (Ziaka, 2009). The members of these communities live in Athens and Thessaloniki, other big cities, and the islands, mainly in refugee camps. The new Islam, which dates back to the 1970s, has increased today and especially since 2015 due to dramatic changes, wars, and difficult economic and environmental conditions in many of the refugees’ and migrants’ countries of origin. These people come from all over the world, mainly from the Middle East, East and Central Asia, and North and sub-Saharan Africa. There is no particular legal status regarding RE for the children of Muslim immigrants and refugees, who, like other children, enjoy the right to education. It has been observed that mainly since the 1990s, “first- or second-generation immigrant students increasingly attend public school” (Tsitselikis, 2012, 531). Since 2016, and after a great social mobilisation and with the support of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, the children of newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers have been admitted to Greek education in reception classes (Decree TTl/47079/Ministry of Education/18.03.16).5

Religion and Education in Greek State Schools

The Greek state provides education in state and faith-based schools for Christians and Muslims. In 2014, the number of state schools was around 4,633 (primary) and 2,680 (secondary). There are also private (faith) schools, around 320 (primary) and 98 (secondary),1’which are, like state schools, funded by the state. Currently, there are ten Christian faithbased schools distributed all over Greece and two madrasas in Western Thrace. Both Christian and Muslim faith-based schools provide secondary education based on the curricula of studies of the Institute of Educational Policy (IEP) and the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, and they offer extra hours of RI within their weekly schedule. The madrasas provide a bilingual curriculum in Greek and Turkish and instruction in Arabic. There are also two Jewish private schools - in Athens and Thessaloniki - which provide primary education in Greek as well as courses on the Hebrew language and history. Since 1979 a fully-fledged Arabic school, the Libyan School, has operated in Athens (Gogonas, 2010). Based on the Constitution, the state now provides RE for all students and IRE/IRI for Muslim pupils in Western Thrace.

Islam in Greek Religious Education

The Greek (Christian Orthodox) RE curricula today (one for the primary and lower secondary school and one for the upper secondary school [2017]), are mainly focused on their approach towards religious literacy, on a child-centred development of aims, learning outcomes, and subject content, and on teaching methodology. Their aim is the reconceptualisation of theological knowledge into school knowledge, and “learning about” and “learning from” religion. Students are taught to respect religious diversity as well as to become both personally and existentially appreciative of issues surrounding religious faith and religious or non-religious identity (Koukounaras Liagkis, 2013; 2015; Koukounaras Liagkis and Ziaka, 2015).

Since Greek RE is based on what the Greek Constitution labels as the “prevailing religion”, RE elaborates a clear view of the Orthodox religion and tradition, with references and distinct sections about religions. Hence content about Islam is, as a section of Greek RE, available for all students during their RE lessons in primary and secondary education. During the three years of secondary education or high school (ages 13-15) the 2017 curriculum contains a ten-hour section about Islam and Judaism. In addition, the topics shown in Table 10.1 about Islam and

Table 10.1 Islam in Greek Orthodox RE

Primary education (ages 9-12)

High school (Gy mnasium) (ages 13-15)

Upper high school (Lyceum) (ages 16-18)

• Symbols of Islam

• Representation of

• Expressions of

  • • Friday in Islam
  • • Prayers and the Mosque
  • • The Virgin Mary

God in Islam

• Jesus in the Qur'an and the Islamic tradition

religious experience, community, and individualism in Islam

• The essence of the

in the Qur’an

  • • Rites of Passage
  • • The Qur’an
  • • The stranger in Islam
  • • Religions and the

sacred in the everyday life of the faithful

• The role of the Muslim

  • • Excerpts from Islam
  • • Law
  • • Fasting in Islam
  • • Islam in our country

problem of exil

religious authorities

  • • Political power and the stance of Islam
  • • The dialogue of churches with Islam
  • • Islam and bioethics
  • • Life and death
  • • Forgiveness
  • • The acceptance of “otherness” in Islamic traditions
  • • Work and deeds of man
  • • Justice
  • • Happiness

Islamic Religious Education in Greece 167 the life of Muslims will be taught until 2020 in primary and secondary education along with the rest of the content, which concerns Orthodox Christianity and other denominations and other religions.

As Table 10.1 shows, there is explicit attention to Islam in Greek RE classes through the religious studies perspective according to a phenomenological approach.

Islamic Religious Education and Religious Instruction

With the exception of Western Thrace, there is no possibility for Muslims to have IRE or IRI in state schools within the country. As a result, Muslims are often enrolled in Greek RE or they are exempted from it, if they so desire. This is particularly the case for indigenous Muslims living on the islands of Rhodes and Kos - which for historical reasons do not enjoy a special minority status for the education of Muslims corresponding to that of Western Thrace (Kaurinkoski, 2016) - as well as for immigrants and refugees with a Muslim background (Vergou, 2019).

Muslim students, just like all other Greek students, as well as foreigners and students born of mixed marriages, attend state schools and take the common RE classes, but with the option of exemption should they so wish. In this regard, it should be noted that the majority of applications for exemption from RE in primary and secondary education does not come from Muslims, but from Greek students (Koukounaras Liagkis, 2019, 32). There are no data on the reasons for this, but it is assumed that Muslims are positive to RE due to their religious beliefs and their need to integrate into school life and to not feel different. Due to the small number of Muslims in the country, there had been no reason for, and no previous reason to forecast, a special IRE/IRI except for the Muslims of Western Thrace. So far there have been no discussions or claims by the Muslim communities, which have diverse (cultural, national, and linguistic) backgrounds. With the adoption of the latest RE curricula (2017), there was strong belief among many theologians and citizens that RE could work for all students, without exception, as a bridge builder and not as a divisive factor within the school. At the same time, families or religious institutions can offer catechistic instruction for their religious traditions.

The Place of Islam Within National Life and Education: Western Thrace

The special minority status of Muslims in Western Thrace can be more fully understood within the historical and political context of the two nation-states, Greece and Turkey, which arose after the violent political upheaval and symbiosis of centuries. With the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), their status was regulated with the rights and protection of the “Greeksof Constantinople” in Turkey and the “Muslim minority” of Western Thrace (Treaty of Lausanne, Articles 37-45) (Askouni, 2006). Only against this background can one better understand the relationship of modern Greece with Greek Muslims concerning their religion, a relationship which also reflects the political relations between Turkey and Greece. Beyond the Treaty of Lausanne and particularly between 1950 and 1970, Turkey was directly involved in minority education through the sending of books, funds for the construction of schools, and teacher education. Greece’s Muslim minority is thus embraced, to a large extent, by Turkey, and for these reasons Islam is mainly understood as a political instrument used by Turkey to safeguard its influence in the region (Grigoriadis, 2013, 87-88; Couroucli and Tchavdar, 2016, 9, 189-227).

Education for Muslims in Western Thrace is categorised as formal education, recognised by the Greek state and facilitated in Muslim minority schools, in madrasas, and in state schools. In the school year 2018-2019, a total of 6,592 students were studying in the minority schools and madrasas in Western Thrace: 4,846 in primary minority schools, 1,505 in Komotini’s and Xanthi’s secondary minority schools, and 241 in Komotini’s and Xanthi’s madrasas? The madrasas in 1998 (Art. 4, Law 2621/23.6.1998) received secondary school status and are considered equal to the six-year attendance at Christian faith-based lower secondary and upper secondary schools.

A non-formal education operates in parallel, specifically the Kuran kursu, whose presence was strengthened mainly after 1990 with the intervention of Turkey (Tsitselikis, 2012, 172-173). The Kuran kursu take place on a daily basis at regular intervals in the mosques or in rooms near the mosque (Berger, 2018). In this paper, we will not be referring to this kind of IRI, where the main aim is the memorisation of the Qur’an in Arabic. Rather, our focus will be on “regular” IRE/IRI, provided in the different school types in Western Thrace.

Islamic Religious Education/Islamic Religious Instruction in Western Thrace: Curricula, Textbooks, and Teacher Training

IRE/IRI is provided in Western Thrace in minority schools, madrasas, and since 2013 in state schools at the primary and secondary levels.8 Each educational structure has its own IRE/IRI curriculum, its own timetable for the teaching of IRE/IRI, and its own educators. IRE/IRI in these different school types can be broadly understood as Islamic religious instruction (IRI), aiming at socialisation in one’s own tradition and rooted in the historical tradition of teaching Islam to Muslims.

The minority schools of Thrace and the madrasas are supervised by the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs and specifically by the Regional Education Directorate of Eastern Macedonia and

Thrace, which is the provincial office for all the schools of the region which are part of the Office for Minority Education (Law 4310/2014, Art. 63). The Office for Minority Education of the Regional Education Directorate of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace coordinates the primary and secondary directorates of the Regional Units of Rhodope, Xanthi, and Evros regarding specific issues concerning minority education. This particularly applies to the organisation and functioning of primary and secondary education minority schools and of the madrasas, and the organisation and administrative support for the teaching of the Qur’an by IRE/IRE teachers according to Article 53 of Law 4115/2013 in the state schools.

These three educational structures, which are recognised as equal by the state, involve a six-year course of study; they lead, after examinations, to university education, and each of them provides an IRE/ IRI fairly different in terms of material, structure, pedagogic aims, and language, as we will see below.

Islamic Religious Instruction in Muslim Minority Schools

In the Muslim minority schools, IRE/IRI, Turkish Language, Religion, Sciences, and Maths are taught only in Turkish, while History, Environmental Studies, Geography, and the Greek language are taught in Greek.9 In the Rhodopi mountains, primary education takes place exclusively in the minority schools, as opposed to the urban areas, where minority and state primary schools coexist. For secondary education, there are two minority schools in Thrace: a lower and an upper secondary school (Cumiilcine Celal Bayar Lises) in Komotini founded in 1952 and a lower and upper secondary school {Iskece Muzafeer Salioglu Azinlik Ortaokul ve Lises) in Xanthi founded in 1965.10 The Muslim students in these schools are taught IRE/IRI in Turkish (Liazos, 2007, 117; Tsitselikis, 2012, 480-534).

In 2019-20, the total of minority schools numbered 123, but a steady decrease can be observed for a variety of reasons, including the attendance of many Muslim students at state schools, which are deemed to provide a better education and entry to university education.11

The teaching of IRE/IRI in Turkish is compulsory; it begins in the second year of primary school and continues into lower and upper secondary school. It is a two-hour subject in the second year of primary school and a three-hour subject for the remaining four years of primary school, while in lower and upper secondary school it is a two-hour subject. Due to the heavy workload of the bilingual programme, there is usually an informal one-hour lesson of IRE/IRI in the minority lower and upper secondary schools. The name of the course is Religion, or more specifically Din Kulturu ve ahlak bilgisi (Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethics). Until 1982 it was mainly called Din Derleri (Religious Lessons).

“This move, which shifted the emphasis from religion to culture and ethics, was intended to make the course inclusive to all students, regardless of their religion. However, the change in name was not accompanied by a significant change in content. The religion textbooks had an additional chapter titled ‘Atatürk’s thoughts about our religion and about Laicism”’ (Müftügil, 2011, 171).

The IRE/IRI curricula for minority schools are procured in Turkey. In general, they follow the Turkish RE/RI curriculum, but with a reduced amount of teaching material. For this reason, many educators deem these curricula as inadequate, and many times they are not followed to the letter. In the minority schools, IRE/IRI textbooks which were adopted in 1991-1992 and sent from Turkey to Greece in 2000 are used. The textbooks written in 2000 were based on certain changes to the curriculum that had occurred in 1986, such as the addition of a multicultural character to material in the curriculum or cross-cultural principles (Liazos, 2007, 125-156, 284).

The content is mainly of a confessional type, with indoctrinating elements which are chiefly to be found in the exercise of orthopraxy in Islam, such as the ways of preparing the believer and the faithful for prayer, the way to pray for both boys and girls, and the pillars of Islam. There are very few references to other religions (mainly Judaism and Christianity), which are described within the context of a Muslim understanding. The content for primary school is, in general, identical to that of lower and upper secondary school, but in a simplified form. A prominent position is given to elements of empowerment within the religious community through knowledge of the religious ethos and customs, traditions, and the value of Islamic morality and identity. At the same time, issues of religious ethics are being developed, aiming at the prevention of behaviour which does not conform to the requirements and fundamental principles of Islam. There are, in many parts of the books, prompts for the memorisation of specific verses of the Qur’an and prayers.

Islamic Religious Instruction in Madrasas

The two madrasas, one in Komotini (Hayriyye Medresesi), and one in the city of Xanthi (§ahin Medresesi), have a different status compared to IRE/IRI in minority schools and in state schools. Since 1998-1999, the madrasas in Komotini and Xanthi have moved from a five-year to a six-year programme, which is equal to the programme in state schools (Law 2621/1998, Art. 4, and Ministerial Decree T2/5560 of 25-11-1999). The school subjects and curricula in madrasas are the same as those in state schools, supplemented by additional IRI courses such as Interpretation of the Quran, Tafsir, Arabic and Turkish Language, Islamic History, Sira, Fiqh, and Aqida (Table 10.2).

Table 10.2 Additional IRE courses in madrasas


High school

Upper high school

1st year

2nd year

3rd year

1st year

2nd year 3rd year


2 h

2 h


1 h

  • 1 h 1 h
  • (methodology')


4 h

3 h



2 h 3 h


2 h

2 h

2 h

1 h

1 h


1 h

1 h

1 h

1 h

1 h 1 h





1 h




1 h

1 h

I h

1 h

1 h 1 h





1 h

1 h





1 h

  • 1 h 1 h
  • (methodology')


(Imam’s duties)

1 h

Initially, the aim of the madrasas was to educate imams (ierodidaskaloi). Beginning in 2001-2002, the madrasas began to enroll girls, while the children from the Muslim minority who were trained after their graduation as teachers in a Special Pedagogic Academy (EPATH) now come mainly from state schools and are trained in the tertiary/university educational institutions of the country.

Recently, the newly appointed Committee for the Improvement of the Educational System of the Religious (Muslim) Minority of Thrace by the Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs proposed, among other things, the reform of the school timetable. A specialised programme of eight additional hours for secondary schools, with the exception of the third year of the upper secondary school where seven additional hours are proposed, for a total of 35 hours per week and based on the model of the state schools for Christian faith-based schools (FEK 3482/17.9.2019) has been suggested.

In accordance with this, new books on IRI have been proposed. These books are written by a committee of experts, set up by Muslim and non-Muslim scientists in the field, and under the supervision of the Institute of Educational Policy (IEP), which is a state institute.12 This endeavour is aimed at safeguarding the quality of teaching, to eliminate copy-paste translations from Turkish and other Islamic handbooks, and to open the course according to new educational demands by respecting the religious teaching of Islam and the needs of the community, but at the same time by proposing pedagogical changes: to move from a book-centred to a student-centred subject and from content-centred teaching to method-centred teaching in which active and experiential learning would be the basis for instruction. For this reason, a call for

32 Muslim and non-Muslim experts, but with certified qualifications to teach Islam, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek languages, was launched in August 2019. The project is planned to last 20 months and to provide new bilingual (Greek and Turkish) educational material for the two madrasas of Western Thrace.

This endeavour was not totally welcomed by some members of the minority, who felt that they had lost their “accumulated benefits”, since the old books (50 in total) which the IEP gave its opinion on in 2016-2017 were considered substandard. These books dated from 1991 and were treated as copyright belonging to the Madrassa of Komotini, Hayriyye, while others were treated as having been prepared by a committee of unidentified origin. The content of the majority of IRI textbooks is of a catechistical nature, which exhaustively covers the beginnings of Islam until the end of the period of the four khalifa al-rashidun (the four well-guided caliphs).

Islamic Religious Education/Islamic Religious

Instruction in State Schools

The recent attempt (since 2013) to introduce IRE/IRI in the state schools of Thrace raised many questions and posed several difficulties. This is the first time a second subject on religion, as an elective course, had been introduced into the state schools in Greece and the first time students in state schools were separated according to their religions. The development of IRE/IRI was exclusively for Muslim students, who until then had either been exempted or had been included in Greek RE together with all the other students. IRE/IRI was chosen by the majority of the students and thus is considered a success. IRE/IRI teachers were chosen by a special committee made up of both the heads of the Muftiate and other Muslims, and they were appointed both as IRE/IRI teachers and as imams in the mosques (around 64 in 2013-2014 and around 85 in 2019-2020). However, even though the state pays their wages and pensions, there are not enough IRE/IRI teachers for all the state schools in Thrace, which are attended by a significant number of Muslim students. There is also a lack of textbooks, and teachers therefore develop their own teaching material. The previously mentioned call for a committee of experts to work on a new IRE/IRI curriculum and on a Teachers’ Guide for Madrasas could also be used in state schools.

Although the initiative to organise IRE/IRI in state schools has been deemed a success due to the number of students who attend, it has caused a considerable number of problems and reactions too (Koukounaras Liagkis, 2013). To a certain extent, the unique religious and political realities of Thrace have made this attempt on the part of the ministry understandable but also challenging. Since more and more Muslim parents prefer the state education system for their children rather than the minority system, instruction in IRE/IRI has been delivered for the

Islamic Religious Education in Greece 173 first time in Greek and not in Turkish.13 For this reason, there has been a backlash from the Muslim community over the choice of language (i.e., Arabic for the Quran and Greek for the instruction) because until now the teaching of Islam in minority schools and madrasas was only conducted in Turkish. Another problem which required an immediate solution was related to the IRE/IRI teachers themselves14 (Koukounaras Liagkis and Ziaka, 2015) and especially to the question of whether they were ready to teach the Qur’an and Islam in state schools in Arabic with Greek as an auxiliary language. The introduction of IRE/IRI in state schools of Western Thrace is a big step because there is hope that Muslim Greek citizens will be able to express their religious beliefs, customs, and habits in the Greek language. And language, especially religious language, can be a tool for understanding not only within the school but also in society.

In order to address the abovementioned issues, a training session and a very brief introductory seminar of 40 hours, which was supported by Thessaloniki’s School of Theology as well as by doctors of Muslim theology and professors of pedagogy, took place in 2013. The training was strengthened with the inclusion of wider culturally related issues within RE and within the educational framework of an Operational Life-Long Learning European Programme.15 Its implementation consisted of a 460-hour training programme in a year and a half (2014-2015) that brought Christian and Muslim educators together in the same group for the first time in the history of the country (Ziaka, 2017).Ib

At the same time, a public debate has begun regarding the Thrace minority issues. There are voices who are critical not only of the “hegemonic elite” of the Greek state but also of other agents in the region, such as the media and local “elites” (Gkintidis, 2013, 455-468; Tsibiridou, 2006, 129-144). There are also demands for oversight of minority issues separate from the Greek state. Finally, there are extreme (mainly rightwing, ultra-nationalist) voices who do not want Islam to be discussed anywhere in the public sphere and are thus strongly against the teaching of Islam in the Greek state schools.

Improving Islamic Religious Education: Recent Trends and Initiatives

The history of minority education in Thrace is long, but in its state schools it is relatively new. Despite this, the changes have been rapid and have caused new demands which the Greek state has considered, while in the public sphere initiatives are gradually being developed.

From 2016 onwards, a new undergraduate programme in Islamic Studies was inaugurated within the School of Theology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the first in the history of the country.1' Its scientific orientation is based on that of other European and American university programmes. It is a purely academic study of Islam, and itaims to satisfy the immediate needs of the Greek legal, educational, and societal context. Therefore, the purpose of the programme is on the one hand to instruct students in the features of Islam and its many interpretations within a broad theological, historical, and social framework, and on the other hand to familiarise them with Islamic textual tradition. In addition, students are called upon to learn Arabic, and for those students who wish to do so, Persian, and finally to get to know crucial elements of Christian and Jewish theology in order to acquire interreligious and intercultural skills. The undergraduate programme of Islamic Studies also partially attempts to accommodate the needs of the Muslim minority at an academic religious and theological training level without trying to compete with Islamic universities of Muslim majority countries on a confessional level. Those students who wish to train further in confessional terms can do this within their madrasas or in foreign Islamic institutions, since there are no Islamic universities in Greece. The whole endeavour was met with enthusiasm, hard work, and academic support but also with fierce criticism from some conservative Christian and Muslim groups; however, there were no disruptions to the programme. The academic year 2019-2020 was to see the graduation of its first students. However, demands from conservative groups for the cessation of the undergraduate programme in Islamic Studies was to be decided upon by the Administrative High Court in the summer of 2020, when it would be determined whether the undergraduate programme wotdd continue or not.

In conclusion, there has been intense discussion in Greece in recent years about IRE/IRI in relation to primary, secondary, and university education, with the inauguration of Islamic Studies in the Greek academy. Although this came about after a long delay, it appears to be developing rapidly and in a positive way, despite facing many obstacles, including minimum funding and slow administrative procedures, plus the public’s concern about mass immigration and its accompanying issues (e.g., the fear of a loss of national and religious identity, rhetorical hatred and suspicion). Nevertheless, the structures are being created to enable us to predict that it will develop further in an open and positive direction for education and societv. /


  • 1. The Jewish communities and ekaf/awkaf associations (three Muslim muf-tiates) in Western Thrace are also recognised as legal public persons.
  • 2. Available from: publications/Law_4301_-2014_Organization_of_the_legal_form_of_ religious_communities_and_their_organizations_in_Greece.pdf [Accessed 8 June 2020].
  • 3. However, these statistics are approximate since there is no official record of religious beliefs, and many of the migrants and refuges do not live permanently in the country.
  • 4. The so-called Old and New Islam by Konstantinos Tsitselikis. Tsitselikis, K. (2012, 2019).
  • 5. Available from: [Accessed 8 June 2020].
  • 6. Annual Report 2016. Centre for Educational Policy Development of the Greek General Confederation of Labour. Available from: https:// [Accessed 8 June 2020].
  • 7. Numbers obtained in June 2019 from the Office for Minority Education.
  • 8. “Teaching of the Qur’an to students, members of the Muslim minority, who attend state schools in Thrace”, the teaching of the Qur’an to be taught during the teaching hours without being part of the school timetable. (n.l82721/A3/29-ll-2013/YIlAIO).
  • 9. The timetable as well as the analytical programme of studies of minority schools was introduced according to a ministerial decision of 1957 (149251/28.11.1957) (
  • 10. The minority schools are subject to the provisions of Law 694/1977 (A'264) and relevant amendments of the Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, specifically with the Minority High and Upper High school of Xanthi of 10.9.2018, with which the private/independent school’s operating status is brought into line with the operating status of minority schools.
  • 11. Available from: [Accessed 8 June 2020].
  • 12. The call was due in November 2019.
  • 13. This was largely perceived negatively by a section of the minority mainly because of the monopoly between religion and language and the lack of knowledge of Greek theological terminology.
  • 14. IRE/IRI teachers in primary and secondary schools are graduates of the madrasas and the Special Pedagogical Academy (EPATH).
  • 15. Operational Life-Long Learning European Programme sponsored by the European Commission and Greece. Available from: [Accessed 8June 2020].
  • 16. With regard to the programme, there is an in-depth supplement in Greek in the Observer newspaper of Thrace. Available from: [Accessed 8 June 2020].
  • 17. For the philosophy and aims of the programme, see the website of The Department of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, available from: [Accessed 8 June 2020].


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