Attacks against immigrants on the rise in Greek capital (Feature)
By Christine Pirovolakis Dec 17, 2010, 2:06 GMT
Athens - Dimitris Tsipos makes no effort to conceal his hostility as a group of Bangladeshi men walk by carrying an armful of blankets.
'I would get rid of them all,' Tsipos says as he sits in his restaurant, sheltered from an unusual cold snap gripping the Greek capital Athens. 'The Greeks don't want them here. We're fed up.'
One of his employees agrees.
'They turn you into a racist,' Pantelis says, declining to give his last name. 'Immigrants are often forced to leave their country because of war or hunger, but that's not our fault. We cannot turn into the poorhouse of the world.'
Others in the neighbourhood may be more moderate, but a growing handful are supporting right-wing extremism. Tensions surrounding the increasing number of Muslim migrants living in Athens' historic centre have spiraled out of control in recent months.
Immigrants have been repeatedly beaten and stabbed in many of the city's squares, while several makeshift mosques - usually situated in garages or basements of apartment blocks - have been bombed, burned and vandalised.
Most recently, assailants locked the door of a basement prayer house and hurled firebombs through the windows, seriously wounding five worshippers.
Police have stepped up patrols as angry rallies by local residents have increasingly been infiltrated by extreme nationalist groups, who want to protest what they say is an illegal immigrant-fuelled crime wave and downgrading of the neighbourhood.
'I have been living here for the past 38 years and was always treated with respect and felt safe until the past few years,' said Naim Elghandour, who heads the Muslim Association of Greece. 'Now the attacks are increasing.'
Growing tension between Greeks and foreign immigrants in the run- down neighborhoods of Athens was evident in November, as Muslims gathered to celebrate the festival of Eid-al-Adha in public squares across Athens, including at the front entrance of Athens University's Propylea building.
Protesters from the extreme-right group Chrysi Avghi played loud music from a nearby apartment, threw eggs and jeered at the immigrants throughout the hour-long service in the city's Attiki Square.
The incident occurred as tension grows over illegal immigration in Greece, the busiest transit point for human trafficking in the European Union.
Greece has had to request EU assistance in trying to seal its border with Turkey. More than 42,000 refugees trying to cross into Greece from neighbouring Turkey have been stopped by border agents from the EU agency Frontex since January.
Elghandour say the attacks in Greece mirror similar incidents in other European countries such as Italy and France.
'It is part of the extreme right in Europe - it is a fashion that has caught on in Greece but hopefully it will pass at some point,' he said.
Highlighting the increasing public discontent, Nikos Michaloliakos, the leader of the right-wing group Chrysi Avgi or 'Golden Dawn,' won the group's first-ever seat on the Athens City Council in local elections in November.
The group gathered strong support in neighbourhoods where prostitution, drug dealing and the trade in counterfeit goods are rife, with thousands of immigrants scraping out a living, residing in run-down hotels and derelict buildings.
Michaloliakos campaigned on anti-immigrant issues and against a long-delayed government plan to construct a state-funded mosque in the Greek capital.
Athens is the only capital of the original 15 EU member states not to have an official mosque. The Muslim community in Greece is estimated at about 1 million, in a country where most people are Greek Orthodox Christians.
Presently, the only mosques in Greece are in the north-eastern region of Thrace, home to some 100,000 Muslims.
Fearing that a delay in the construction of a proper mosque could lead to further clashes, the government has set aside a 1.6-hectare plot of land in Votanikos, near central Athens, where the mosque is due to be built.
Officials have said that an international architectural competition for the building's design will be launched in January.
Although the country's influential Orthodox Church has given its backing to the project, opinion polls show that half of Athens' 5 million residents oppose the plan.
Resistance and anti-immigrant sentiment has also been fuelled by the country's financial problems.
Amidst a wave of austerity measures that include salary and pension cutbacks and an increase in taxes, many Greeks are questioning whether it is appropriate to allocate funds to construct a mosque.
'Why should taxpayers be responsible for paying for a mosque?' Antonia Liakou, a resident living near Votanikos, asked. 'The government has bled us dry. Now we have to pay for them to have a place of worship?'
Newly elected Mayor Giorgos Kaminis is determined to tackle the problem by initiating a dialogue between the municipality and the migrants in an effort to ease increasing tensions.
'We are seeking advice from municipal authorities in Germany who have averted similar campaigns against immigrants by neo-Nazis,' said the mayor's spokesperson, Takis Kampilis.
The new mayor is also planning to organise street markets where migrants can legitimately sell their products rather than selling them illegally on street corners.
Dimitris Christopoulos, a political science professor at Panteion University and an activist with the Hellenic League of Human Rights, says the recent wave of violence stems from the general failure of the Greek state to organise policies of integration.
'The first wave of immigrants from Albania were integrated into Greek society in the 1990s, but I do not think that the Greeks have the patience or willingness to accept this second wave of immigrants from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan,' he says.
'I am not at all optimistic. Things are very dark indeed,' he adds.
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