Greece marks out limits of tolerance: Despite pressure from EU partners and others, Athens is reluctant to dismantle laws curbing activities of the non-Orthodox

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The Independent Online
THE 85-year-old Minos Kokkinakis and his wife were doing what Jehovah's Witnesses all over the world do, knocking on doors and sharing their faith, when they happened upon the home of a cantor of the Orthodox Church.

She invited them inside and began asking them questions about their faith. Then she called the police, who arrested the couple and held them overnight. Later a magistrate's court would sentence them to four months behind bars and fine them. Due to Greece's Draconian anti-proselytising law Mr Kokkinakis has been arrested more than 60 times since he converted in 1938.

But this time the case went to the European Human Rights court in Strasbourg, where Greece was condemned for violating the couple's right to freedom of religion and fined more than pounds 8,000.

The ruling caused intense embarrassment for ordinary Greeks, most of whom belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church and have no problems with other religions. The Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy, however, remains deeply suspicious of the intentions of the Roman Catholic faith, Protestantism and Islam. The church has lobbied, so far successfully, against any changes to laws, dating back to the Fascist Metaxas dictatorship, which deny religious freedom to non-Orthodox believers.

The laws make it a criminal offence to seek converts to non- Orthodox churches and are directed mainly at evangelical Baptists, Pentecostalists and Jehovah's Witnesses, about 2,000 of whom have been arrested in the past 10 years. Around 400 religious conscientious objectors have been imprisoned for refusing to bear arms when conscripted to the Greek army over the same period.

Another move which sent a chill down the spines of human rights workers was a decision by the Greek parliament last year requiring citizens to state their religious affiliation on their identity cards, making it the only EU country to do so.

There is also well-documented evidence that the national intelligence service, the EYP, has been keeping files on non-Orthodox Greeks and classifying them by religion.

Despite the panoply of laws and measures against non-Orthodox Greeks, lawyers who have represented those under attack say they are more an annoyance than a sign of religious persecution. 'We are not Bosnia, Northern Ireland or Iran when it comes to religious discrimination,' cautioned Panagiotis Bitsaxis, who took the Kokkinakis case to the Strasbourg court.

'The problem is more that some bishops in the Orthodox Church do not understand that you have to live with other people, and are afraid their church will lose its dominant position among Greeks.'

However, Willy Fautre, author of a new, critical report on religious intolerance in Greece by Human Rights Without Frontiers, complains it is impossible for non-Orthodox believers to live peacefully and legally in Greece.

Thanos Veremis, a prominent Greek political commentator and visiting professor at Oxford, says that the laws against non-Orthodox faiths are a hangover from the anti- Communist hysteria after the Greek civil war.

'These are remnants of the past rather than present trends,' he said. 'There has never been as much freedom in Greece as there is today, and of all people the Greeks are not prone to intolerance.'

Yet Catholics, Protestants and other faiths are restricted in where they may open churches, and must petition the Orthodox hierarchy for permission. Foreign clergy cannot enter the country without permission and there is an official policy against employing non-Orthodox teachers, even in private schools. This has brought Greece into conflict with Brussels, where its policy of not issuing licences to outsiders to run foreign-language schools is contrary to directives on freedom of establishment.

Greece's EU partners protested vigorously and unsuccessfully about the new identity card bearing the holder's religious affiliation, which must be carried by citizens at all times.

The identity card requirement is especially upsetting to Greece's small Jewish community. The fear is that it opens the way to discrimination.

A high-pressure international lobbying campaign has just begun to persuade the government to reverse the law. When the Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, visited New York recently, he was approached by senior Jewish figures. In London, prominent British Jews have had meetings with the Greek ambassador.

Although Greeks are not a very devout people, the average Greek feels his Hellenic identity bound up with the Orthodox Church. Centuries of battling heresies, schisms, Vatican plots and Ottoman oppression have given the church a special place in Greek consciousness.

A confidential EYP report leaked to the press described efforts to monitor 'heretical sects and para-religious organisations' - Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses. The EYP was urging 'repressive and preventive measures' against these 'traitors'.

With the help of the Greek identity cards, the secret service proposed dividing the population into two categories, according to religion. There would be 'genuine, pure, incorruptible Greeks', in other words the Orthodox, and the others, 'non-genuine, impure, corruptible Greeks'.

When the report was published last year, the secret service said it had already been annulled, because it was 'untrue'. But critics charge that the EYP did so only after the report reached a foreign power, believed by some to be Israel, which protested to Athens.

(Photograph omitted)