Cretans told to lower weapons

In 1941, the Nazi war machine received a bloody nose on the Greek island of Crete when its paratroopers fell in droves against enraged Cretan peasants during the invasion that capped the battle for Greece. Sixty years on, the Greek Public Order Ministry is treading more gingerly in a campaign to wean the Cretans from a love affair with firearms rooted in the island’s proud World War II history. Renowned artists and academics of Cretan origin, including veteran composer Mikis Theodorakis, have been enlisted to stop the islanders from firing their guns at weddings and festivals, a cherished custom that has caused several deaths. Appealing to Cretan pride, the campaign calls on the islanders to «show respect» to their grandfathers’ weapons and refrain from «shaming them with pointless discharges.» «We hope that in this manner, a phenomenon that has caused many ills will start to wane,» Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis, who hails from the Cretan capital of Iraklion, said on a visit to the port on Thursday. Voulgarakis later attended an anti-gunfire event in Anogeia, a mountainous town in central Crete considered a stronghold of the noisy tradition. The word on Crete has it that among a population of 500,000, each islander has a personal firearm or hunting rifle. One custom dictates that each newborn son be gifted a gun. Another has the father of a new bride firing thrice into the air, preferably with a German war relic, as she leaves the parental home. Cretans are no strangers to the use of arms. Their island served as a battleground in the wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs, and later in the struggle between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. «In the old days, people had guns and their next-door neighbors didn’t even know it,» an Anogeia municipal official told AFP. «Nowadays, people strap on a weapon and strut down the street. Sadly, this now passes for bravado,» he added. The government is making no attempt to wrest the Cretans’ weapons away. But some locals have grown uncomfortable with their island’s reputation for gun-toting abandon, concerned about potential side effects to the booming Cretan tourism industry. «People will ask, if I go to Crete this summer will I have mortar shells landing next to me?» said Stelios Kiagiadakis, chairman of the Cretan association of breech wearers, an influential local folk group. «Illegal gun ownership exists all over Greece,» he insisted. «I travel all over Crete, and I can tell you that the excesses of the 1980s and ’90s have been stamped out here.» Police recorded eight deaths and 42 injuries on Crete from gunfire accidents in the last decade, but suggest more casualties could have gone unreported. Other local estimates place the dead and injured at five to 10 a year. «There is widespread gun ownership across Crete, but the firing practice has declined in the last three to four years,» said Giorgos Boutsakis, the police chief in the northwestern city of Rethymnon. «We have conducted campaigns, and the locals themselves understand the problem after the accidents that occurred,» he said. Kiagiadakis, the folk association chairman, suggests the authorities would do well to look beyond Crete for troublemakers in future. «Did anyone arrest the fathers of (national football squad stars) Theodoros Zagorakis and Angelos Charisteas last summer, when they were firing into the air to celebrate Greece’s victory in Euro 2004?» he asked.

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