Greece's 'Elian' pits religious beliefs not politics

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The Independent Online

A toddler being called the Greek "Elian" is at the center of an international custody battle - only this feud is over religion, not politics.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Georgios Papandreou is scheduled to meet with the boy's parents who are fighting to retrieve him from his Egyptian grandfather. The boy was left with him in early March and the grandfather allegedly reneged on a promise to bring him back.

"Really, it is a human drama ... We want to help," said Papandreou.

The parents of the boy claim the grandfather refuses to return him to a "Christian environment" in Greece and insists he take a Muslim name and be raised in that faith. The grandfather, Mohamed Ali Ahmed, admits he wants a strict Muslim upbringing for the boy, but also claims the boy's father threatened him when the issue was raised.

For nearly all Greeks, there is no debate. Newspaper commentaries and opinion polls call for the boy to be returned.

"He's our 'Elian,"' said a report on Greece's Mega private television channel, referring to the custody fight over Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez.

In Greek Orthodox tradition, the 21-month-old boy has no formal name until he is baptized. His parents are considering the name "Vassilis," but now just call him "our son" or "the kid." Meanwhile, the grandfather refers to him as "Hani."

The tussle touches something deeper than a custody quarrel. Widespread anti-Muslim feelings - with roots dating back to 400 years of Ottoman occupation - are being stoked.

Archbishop Christodoulos, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, suggested Monday that Islamic fervor "is at fault for inspiring this behavior."

In Egypt, the case has received no media attention and the family has avoided speaking to reporters - a distinct contrast to the publicity barrage launched by the boy's Greek father Yiannis Diamandis, 31, and the boy's Egyptian-born mother, Gehan Mohamed Fathi Ali Ahmed, 25.

There has been no official Egyptian government response on the issue but police in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria say the case is under investigation.

"He has no authority over the kid, no authority on my wife," Diamandis said.

The boy's parents met in the United States and married in a civil ceremony in New York in March 1998. A month later, they came to Greece because Diamandis had to serve in the military.

The boy was born on July 10, 1998, in Trikala, about 230 kilometers (145 miles) northwest of Athens. About a year later, he was taken by his mother to Alexandria to visit her estranged family.

The family was shocked at her clothing, which they considered too shabby for a university-educated woman. "A pair of shorts and a T-shirt which I wouldn't let a servant be seen in," said her brother, Hani Mohamed Ali Ahmed.

Diamandis and his wife returned to Greece in early March after the grandfather promised to bring the boy a week later.

"If I've lost my kid, I've lost everything," sobbed the boy's mother in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Diamandis, who was Christian, claimed he even converted to Islam in February in an attempt to placate the family and take back his son. The couple says their marriage vows were renewed in an Islamic rite in Egypt.

But the grandfather's relatives say he will not to be satisfied until he is confident the boy will be raised under Islamic tenets and Diamandis adopts a Muslim name.

"We are not trying to keep the boy from his mother ... We love (and) we forgave her," said her brother Hani. "But we want to be sure that she and the baby are taken care of and that the child is raised as a Muslim."