- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

Muslim leaders in Greece are warning authorities of violent protests in the mainly Christian Orthodox nation after an incident in which a policeman reportedly defaced a Koran.

“How can you control enraged 20-year-old Afghans who will hit the streets seeking to die in the name of Allah?” asked Naim al-Ghandour, president of the Muslim Union of Greece.

Mr. al-Ghandour’s warning followed demonstrations by Muslims to protest the Koran incident and the attempted arson by suspected far-right activists of a Muslim prayer room.

Muslim immigrants are planning additional demonstrations this week following a largely peaceful protest in central Athens on Friday, in which they were joined by immigrant groups and human rights organizations.

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A week earlier, a similar demonstration degenerated into clashes with police, leaving 14 people injured, dozens of cars smashed and 46 people arrested, according to the Associated Press.

Muslim leaders in Greece have distanced themselves from the violence, but are seeking a formal apology from police while warning that they are on the verge of losing control over their communities.

Riot police forces, who typically battle anarchists on the left and right, have instead been placed on full alert in neighborhoods populated by Greece’s estimated 1 million immigrants.

“This is creating hate in a country that did not have the reputation in the Arab and Muslim world of being an enemy,” Mr. al-Ghandour said.

Mohammad Ateeq, the Iraqi immigrant at the center of the controversy, lodged a suit on charges of damage to property and religious disrespect.

He claims that the unidentified policeman insulted him, tore his copy of the Koran and proceeded to step on it.

“Greece is not Denmark,” said Ahmed Muawiya, a member of the Greek Immigrant Forum, seeking to dispel fears of another conflagration like one that followed the 2006 global riots over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

“But offending Islam is not a game, and this must not be viewed as just an immigrant issue,” Mr. Muawiya said.

Greece has been struggling for more than a decade with the illegal entry of mostly Muslim immigrants from the Arab world, North Africa and Central Asia.

An estimated 400,000 Muslims - including both legal and illegal immigrants - in the greater Athens area alone pray in 130 makeshift shrines in the absence of an official mosque in the Greek capital.

One such space was set on fire last week by suspected far-right activists after one demonstration by Muslim protesters turned violent.

The governing New Democracy party is absorbed in electioneering ahead of Europe-wide parliamentary elections June 7 and has not addressed the issue publicly beyond a statement by the Deputy Interior Minister Christos Markogiannakis calling for calm.

The powerful Greek Orthodox Church in this devoutly religious country has also avoided becoming publicly involved.

“If this situation continues as it is now, we will probably address it,” said church spokesman Gabriel Papanikolaou, “but at the moment, it is a purely social issue, and we’re hoping it will remain at that.”

Nevertheless, Archbishop Ieronymos, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians in Greece, spoke out for freedom of religion in comments that also stressed that “any expression of violence in the name of any religion is absolutely to be condemned because it deeply transgresses the core of religion.”

The church has donated a large plot of land for the creation of a Muslim cemetery and supports the creation of Greece’s first mosque. It offers daily food handouts in central Athens, irrespective of creed.

Greece’s Muslim communities have largely condemned the rioting while also warning that the situation could spiral out of control.

“If you think that by pillaging the businesses and properties of our fellow citizens, we will react … you are terribly mistaken,” announced the Filotita group, a government-recognized body that represents Greece’s estimated indigenous Muslim minority of 100,000 people.

Iason Athanasiadis reports on Greece through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.

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