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Clashes break out in Greece over Koran incident

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek riot police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of Muslims who pelted them with sticks and stones outside parliament on Friday during protests over what they said was the destruction of a Koran by a Greek policeman.

A Muslim immigrant throws a stone towards riot policemen during clashes after a rally in Athens May 22, 2009. REUTERS/John Kolesidis

The Muslim Union of Greece says that during police checks at a Syrian-owned coffee shop, an officer took a customer’s Koran, tore it up, threw it on the floor and stomped on it. Police have launched an investigation.

About 1,500 Muslims marched through Athens to protest against the incident, chanting “Allah is great”, carrying banners reading “Hands off immigrants” and holding up copies of Islam’s holy book.

“They started throwing rocks and sticks at police guarding parliament and the officers responded with tear gas and percussion bombs,” a police official said.

The protesters pulled up pavements, smashed about a dozen shop windows and damaged cars, leaving some overturned in the middle of streets. Bus stops and traffic lights were destroyed and shocked tourists ran into hotels on the central Syndagma Square for cover.

Police said 46 protesters were arrested. Seven Muslims and another seven policemen were injured and brought to hospital for treatment. About 75 cars, five stores and one bank were damaged, according to a police statement.

“We want to live here in peace, we don’t want trouble but we want the policeman to be punished,” said a 30-year-old illegal Egyptian immigrant who identified himself as Said.

It was the second protest since the reported incident. On Thursday, about 1,000 immigrants, many from Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, marched to centrally located Omonia Square, smashing several shop windows and five cars.

The Muslim Union, representing thousands of immigrants in Athens, said it had filed a lawsuit against the unidentified policeman.

“Police told us they need more time for the internal investigation so we went ahead and filed a suit,” union president Naim Elghandour told Reuters.

Deputy Public Order Minister Christos Markogiannakis said that the incident was isolated and that it didn’t justify the immigrants’ violent outburst.

“We call on the economic migrants who live in Greece to respect the rule of law and we point out that the state won’t allow such extreme behavior,” Markogiannakis said in the statement.

Thousands of immigrants, many from Muslim countries, cross into Greece illegally every year seeking a better life in the West. Trapped in legal limbo, most have no jobs, live in squalid conditions and are often arrested for minor crimes.

On May 9, members of a rightist group attacked immigrants in Athens, sending at least three to hospital. Rights groups accuse predominantly Orthodox Christian Greece of not doing enough to protect immigrants.

Greece says the burden of being the main entry point for illegal immigration into Europe is too heavy to bear alone and has asked its EU partners for help.