Amid increasing Islamophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes in the European countries, 15 protesters have been arrested in Athens for staging an occupation at a site where a mosque is due to be built with state funds for mostly migrants and refugees.
Police said the occupation started two weeks ago but ended early Friday when riot police were sent to the area to make the arrests shortly after dawn. The protesters face charges of public disturbance offenses and are to appear at a prosecutor's office later Friday. Parliament in August voted for the 950,000-euro ($1 million) project in a former industrial zone near central Athens, with the left-wing government receiving broad cross-party support. The number of Muslims living in Greece has risen in recent years due to a spike in immigration and the more recent refugee crisis.
Muslim migrants currently use dozens of makeshift prayer sites around the capital, mostly converted basement and ground floor apartments or stores that have gone out of business.
Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis had urged police to end the occupation, noting that some of the protesters had identified themselves as army reservists.
"The mosque should be built as soon as possible. Religious worship is an issue of dignity, a constitutional right, and an international obligation. There are some 200 informal prayer sites in greater Athens that are not supervised in any way and do not meet safety standards," the mayor said Thursday.
"Regarding the occupation of the site where the mosque will be built by far-right paramilitary types, the government should do its duty and take the appropriate action." Police Friday cordoned off the site, while municipal crews fenced off the area.
The extreme-right Golden Dawn party, the third-largest bloc in parliament, strongly opposes the mosque and had supported the protest. Two lawmakers from the party visited the site after the police operation and said the protesters had created a small church during the occupation.
"Some citizens committed the ‘crime' of creating a Christian church ... so the riot police came and arrested them all," said parliament member Ilias Kasidiaris. "The government [and other parties] ... are backing the Islamization of Greece and are showing racism toward Greeks. It will not stand."
Athens remains as the only capital in Europe without an official mosque, even though it is the home of several hundred thousand Muslims.
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