Jehovah's Witnesses jailed in Greece for 'proselytism'

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The Independent Online
A RETIRED Greek businessman in his eighties, Minos Kokkinakis, has served seven prison sentences in the past 50 years and spent four periods of exile away from his home in Crete.

The longest of the sentences, 18 months, served in the 1940s, was for conscientious objection to service in the army. The rest have been for 'proselytism', a crime that appeared on the Greek statute book in 1938 and which no amount of lobbying has been able to shift. Proselytising is banned for all religions except the Orthodox Church. Mr Kokkinakis is a Jehovah's Witness.

On 15 November the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is to hear Mr Kokkinakis' most recent appeal, against an pounds 8,000 fine imposed in 1986 when he and his wife were arrested after police found them reading passages from the Bible and talking about pacifism in biblical terms with friends. A Jehovah's Witness minister, Vasilis Dedotsis, who spent eight years in jail in the early 1970s for repeated refusal to serve in the army, came to London last week on a European tour to raise support for the appeal. He hopes a ruling from Strasbourg might finally force Athens to repeal a law which violates the many human rights agreements to which Greece is a party.

Evangelists, Catholics, Pentecostalists and Protestants are all at risk of arrest and prosecution, though the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose numbers, standing at some 70,000 and increasing, attract the toughest sentences. In the past eight years more than 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses have been arrested for proselytising and 48 of them have been jailed. Thousands have gone to jail as conscientious objectors.

Greece is the only EC country which offers no alternative service: 415 young Jehovah's Witnesses are in jail, serving up to four years. Conditions are, according to Mr Dedotsis, harsh and guards are seldom punished for ill-treating prisoners. Recently a Jehovah's Witness prisoner choked on some food and when he was finally taken to hospital seven hours later, he died.

Jehovah's Witnesses have often adopted an intransigent stance about discussing any kind of service with the military, but Mr Dedotsis insists that in Greece in recent years they have made frequent attempts to reach some kind of compromise.

Mr Kokkinakis is not alone in his desire to publicise Greece's stance on freedom of worship. Four young Jehovah's Witness women, beaten up by a mob apparently set on them by an outraged Orthodox priest, are appealing against a five-month prison sentence and fines of pounds 1,500 pounds each.

Nor are the Jehovah's Witnesses alone in their fight: four army officers, who are Evangelists, are facing a four-year prison sentence handed down by a military court for proselytising in Volos, in central Greeece. They too are appealing to Strasbourg.