Thursday, May 28, 2009

Greece: Muslim showdown

By Apostolis Fotiadis - IPS

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

ATHENS, May 28 (IPS) - Fears have arisen for peace in Athens ahead of a large Muslim demonstration planned for Friday May 29. The demonstration has been called following rioting last week.

Serious riots erupted in the Athens city centre last Thursday after a police officer allegedly desecrated a notebook that a young migrant was carrying, containing prayers from the Quran.

The following day about 2,000 Muslim migrants came out to protest. That soon led to violent clashes between police and protestors.

The demonstrators began overturning cars and smashing shops windows. The police arrested more than 40 demonstrators, seriously injuring at least four. Several times there were confrontations among the demonstrators, with the older ones attempting to calm down the young.

The following night an unidentified group of people torched a place used by Muslims for holding their prayers in St. Panteleimonas. This is a central neighbourhood of Athens were tens of thousands of Muslims reside.

"Our relationship with Greeks and Greece, a traditionally good one, is being damaged by some people who want to prove they are something, but they are nothing," head of the Muslim Association of Greece Naim El-Ghandour told IPS.

"In the beginning we called on our people not to attend the demonstration. We trust Greek justice and we will employ legal means in order to ask for an apology. But I can understand why younger people lost control and did not avoid the confrontation.

"Tearing the Quran was just the last drop. The deeper reasons are social. These are young people unable to work or travel elsewhere, they stay stuck here, and they are socially excluded. You saw the pictures from the old appeal court building (an abandoned building at the city centre which attracted public interest some days ago after neo-Nazis attacked the people squatting there, most of them Muslim).

"How can a person live in Europe in 2009 without electricity and water? What would you do if you lived in those conditions and someone insulted the last and most important thing left to you?" said El-Ghandour.

About 830,000 Muslims of different ethnicities are believed to be living in Greece, about 700,000 in Athens alone. Another 120,000 are concentrated in Western Thrace, in the north-east. This is an indigenous Muslim population.

But despite such numbers, Greece is the only European country without an official mosque or a Muslim cemetery. As a result Greece attracts serious criticism for not respecting religious minorities.

The first request for establishing a mosque was made back in 1976. In 2006 parliament approved the building of a mosque with Greek and European funds in Athens, but the project has been halted for what are described as technical reasons. Muslims gather and pray in unofficial mosques - 67 of them are situated around the capital.

Some years ago the Greek church donated a piece of land for the creation of a cemetery, but this project has not proceeded either. Consequently Muslims have to pay huge fees for a proper burial in Thrace or abroad.

The latest incidents have raised also the longstanding demands ahead of the demonstration planned for Friday. "We are just asking for justice, we will not tolerate any incident," says Tzaved Aslam, a leader from the Pakistani community. "We are all very worried. The government should offer an apology for the destruction of the mosque and penalise the officer that desecrated the Quran."

Conservative political forces are looking to capitalise politically on the unrest, ahead of the European Parliament elections Jun. 4-7.

"We respect them but they have to remember that they came to live here uninvited, and this is an Orthodox country; if they don't like it the door is open," George Karatzaferis, leader of the extreme right parliamentary party Popular Orthodox Alarm said in a statement.

Several political leaders and commentators are expressing concern over the radicalisation of elements within the Muslim community. Concerns are raised also over the somewhat problematic integration of Muslims into Greek society.

But many believe the main responsibility lies with those who fail to offer hope of a better life to thousands of migrants living in run-down neighbourhoods in Athens.

"Every day Greeks in civilian clothing together with policemen hit and curse migrants," says Zahir Mohammed, an Afghan migrant. "We are afraid to go out or to stay at home. We do not have papers, we cannot work.

"They even closed the playground at St. Panteleimonas because Afghan mothers went there with their children. We do not have money, where else can we go? Every single day of our life is the worst."
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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