ATHENS – Rabid anti-vaccination protesters who took to the streets of the Greek capital to denounce a program that has worked to slow the spread of COVID-19 were fired on with water cannon and tear gas after clashing with police.
They are fearful that the New Democracy government will make shots mandatory because the so-called Eleftheria (Freedom) program has seen a little less than half the country's population of 10.7 million vaccinated.
Health officials said a benchmark of 70 percent is needed to slow and beat back the pandemic that's surging again because of the contagious Delta Variant from India and the number of those refusing to be vaccinated.
At least five people were arrested during the altercation in Syntagma Square outside the Parliament and in the heart of the city where tourists mingle with residents and shoppers.
An estimated 3,500 people took part in the protests, said Kathimerini, some of them wearing religious clothing like priests, waving icons and crosses and Greek flags while far-right extremists handed out anti-vaccination literature.
Police said the trouble started when protesters were requested to clear Amalias Avenue, where the demonstrators were obstructing traffic, throwing bottles and other objects at the officers.
Outside the University of Athens, there were clashes between anti-authoritarians and anti-vaccination protestors, the paper said, adding that in Greece's second largest city Thessaloniki there was another anti-vaccination march.
They gathered at the iconic White Tower and marched through the main streets of the city, holding banners, Greek flags, crosses and icons and shouting slogans against the government and mandatory vaccination, the report said.
The demonstration in front of the parliament building took place hours after the government submitted legislation to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for employees at nursing homes and care facilities.
Under the draft bill, staff members could be suspended without pay starting in mid-August if they fail to comply, which has drawn the wrath of those who won't be vaccinated and believe the vaccines aren't safe or effective of part of an international conspiracy by governments and drug companies to alter their DNA.
Vaccinations already were made mandatory for rescue personnel employed by the country's Fire Service, which began transferring non-vaccinated members of its rescue service to other departments this week.
The Greek government is worried that slowing vaccination rates will hurt the country's economic recovery after a steep recession last year caused by lockdowns and the pandemic's impact on the tourism industry.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)