Marginalised Greek Muslims a 'time bomb'
Thousands of Muslims from Arab nations, Africa and the Indian subcontinent now live and work in Athens, often scraping by with meagre wages and in squalid accommodation.Athens -- Religious elders in Athens fear that the city's long-marginalised Muslims are a "time bomb" waiting to explode after a sudden eruption of violence offered a glimpse at their sense of anger and frustration.
Two days of clashes late last week, which broke out during a rally by around 1,000 Muslims in the Greek capital, followed claims that a police officer had torn up an Iraqi migrant's pocket Koran excerpt during an identity check.
More than a dozen people were injured, scores of cars vandalised and a handful of shops had their windows smashed. Police made 46 arrests.
Although the lid was soon placed on the violence, Muslim leaders who condemned the unrest also warned the state must act quickly to reverse the sense of marginalisation.
"This is a time bomb," said Naim El Gadour, chairman of the Muslim Union of Greece. "It might not explode now but in 10 years it will be a huge problem."
Thousands of Muslims from Arab nations, Africa and the Indian subcontinent now live and work in Athens, often scraping by with meagre wages and in squalid accommodation.
A long-standing grievance is that despite years of promises the Greek state has provided no official prayer sites, forcing the faithful to set up makeshift mosques in rented flats and disused warehouses.
El Gadour says there are over 100 unlicensed prayer sites in Athens and hundreds of thousands of Muslims, not counting Albanians and illegal migrants.
"The Greek state has suddenly realised that a sizeable share of its population is Muslim but is not taking the necessary measures to address the issue," he said.
A staunchly Orthodox state with bitter memories of four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, Greece currently offers sanctioned Muslim religious sites only near its northeastern border with Turkey where a Muslim minority of Turkish origin lives.
All traces of Islam were eradicated in Athens in the early 19th century when Christianity was restored, and bureaucratic wrangling and opposition from church leaders and mayors have stalled plans for a mosque and cemetery.
"We see no mosque, we see no cemetery, basically they are making fools of us," says Abu Mahmoud, a Moroccan who has lived in Greece since 1985. "The situation in Athens is getting worse because of the economic crisis which is hitting foreigners the hardest, and the city centre has become a jungle as a result."
After dark, the streets around central Omonia Square become a no-go zone where drug trafficking, prostitution and muggings are rife.
City authorities blame the problem on migrants who have moved into the area's low-rent or disused buildings, while the few remaining Greeks say the police presence is limited to the occasional raid.
As public tolerance towards migrants wanes, violence against them increases.
In February, a grenade was thrown at the offices of a Greek immigrant support network.
Earlier this month, 14 people were injured in clashes between a neo-Nazi group, immigrants and police as the far-right militants tried to dislodge hundreds of migrant squatters from an old courthouse.
And on Saturday, assailants tried to burn a makeshift mosque in a basement, injuring five Bangladeshi men trapped inside.
"The emerging feeling is that Greece has too many migrants and that they need to go,” said Dimitris Levantis, head of the Greek chapter of anti-racism NGO SOS Racisme. “The authorities exploit this feeling and show little zeal to halt racist attacks."
With the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s, Greece saw a surge of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Balkans -- mainly neighbouring Albania.
This first wave was barely assimilated when thousands of refugees began to arrive from war-torn African and Asian countries.
The interior ministry says the number of migrants caught illegally entering or residing in Greece has surged and 146,000 were detained last year.
The nationalist party LAOS, whose popularity has steadily grown in the last five years and now has 10 seats in parliament, wants a migrant quota.
"We cannot absorb them, we don't have the necessary management, hospitals, maternity wards, police, courts and prisons," said LAOS leader George Karatzaferis.