Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Greece legalises same-sex marriage – will any other Orthodox Christian country follow?

Greece has become the first majority-Orthodox Christian nation to legalize same-sex marriage

Peter Smith,Dasha Litvinova
Friday 16 February 2024 15:17 GMT
Greece: Celebrations In Athens After Marriage Equality Bill Passes

Greece has become the first majority-Orthodox Christian nation to legalise same-sex marriage under civil law. And at least for the near future, it will almost certainly be the only one.

A cross-party majority of 176 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament voted on Thursday in favor of the landmark bill drafted by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis ‘ center-right government. Another 76 rejected the reform while two abstained from the vote and 46 were not present in the house.

Mitsotakis tweeted after the vote that Greece “is proud to become the 16th (European Union) country to legislate marriage equality.”

“This is a milestone for human rights, reflecting today’s Greece — a progressive, and democratic country, passionately committed to European values,” he wrote.

Eastern Orthodox leadership, despite lacking a single doctrinal authority like a pope, has been united in opposing recognition of same-sex relationships both within its own rites and in the civil realm. Public opinion in majority Orthodox countries has mostly been opposed, too.

But there are some signs of change. Two small majority-Orthodox countries, Montenegro and Cyprus, have authorized same-sex unions in recent years, as did Greece in 2015 before upgrading to this week’s approval of full marital status.

FILE - A protester raises a banner during a rally against same-sex marriage, at central Syntagma square, in Athens (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Civil unions may become more common among Orthodox countries gravitating toward the European Union. They remain off the table in Russia, which has cracked down on LGBTQ+ expression, and countries in its orbit.

Following is a summary of church positions and public opinion in the Orthodox world, followed by the situation in individual majority-Orthodox lands.

The Orthodox World

Eastern Orthodoxy is a socially conservative, ancient church with elaborate rituals and a strict hierarchy. Churches are mostly organized along national lines, with multiple independent churches that share ancient doctrine and practices and that both cooperate and squabble.

Roughly 200 million Eastern Orthodox live primarily in Eastern Europe and neighboring Asian lands, with about half that total in Russia, while smaller numbers live across the world. Like other international church bodies, Orthodoxy has confronted calls for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

A 2016 statement by a council of most Orthodox churches called marriage between a man and a woman “the oldest institution of divine law” and said members were forbidden from entering same-sex unions.

FILE - Anti-gay protesters hold religious banners amid heavy police presence and during a Pride march in Belgrade, Serbia (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

In countries where they are a majority, Orthodox believers overwhelmingly said society should not accept homosexuality or approve same-sex marriage, according to surveys conducted in 2015 and 2016 by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Greek Orthodox showed relative tolerance, with half of Orthodox saying homosexuality should be accepted and a quarter favoring same-sex marriage. In more recent polls, Greeks overall narrowly supported the marriage law.

The Greek law validates marriage in the civil realm but doesn't require any church to perform such rites.

Nevertheless, Greece’s Orthodox leadership unanimously opposed the law in January, saying the “duality of genders and their complementarity are not social inventions but originate from God.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged the church’s position but said, “We are discussing the decisions of the Greek state, unrelated to theological beliefs.”

Civil unions may be in some Orthodox countries’ near future, said George Demacopoulos, director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York.

“In terms of civil marriage, I think the countries that are in the European Union will eventually all do it,” Demacopoulos said. “My guess is the assemblies of bishops in those countries will offer some resistance to the measure, and depending on where you are, that may or may not delay it.”

Ukraine

In Ukraine, same-sex couples cannot register their status legally.

In 2023, the issue became acute as many LGBTQ+ people joined Ukraine’s armed forces. That year, a bill was introduced in Parliament to establish civil partnerships for same-sex couples, providing basic rights such as compensation if one of the partners is killed in action.

The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations — which includes Ukraine’s two rival Orthodox churches — opposed the draft law, contending that some international entities are using the country’s current vulnerability to force unwanted changes.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The legislation remains pending.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2023 that Ukraine violated the rights of a same-sex couple who sought legal protections provided to married heterosexual couples.

Ukraine is majority Orthodox, with various religious minorities.

Russia

In increasingly conservative Russia, President Vladimir Putin has forged a powerful alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and has made “traditional family values” a cornerstone of his rule, juxtaposing them with “perversions” of the West.

Putin effectively outlawed same-sex marriages in the 2020 constitutional revision that added a clause stipulating that marriage is a union of a man and a woman.

In 2013, the Kremlin adopted what’s known as the “gay propaganda” law, banning any public endorsement of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors.

A gay rights activist stands with a rainbow flag, in front of journalists, during a protest in Russia (Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

After sending troops into Ukraine in 2022, Russian authorities ramped up a campaign against what it called the West’s “degrading” moral influence, in what rights advocates saw as an attempt to legitimize the war.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has assailed LGBTQ+ rights. As head of the Russian Orthodox Church, he oversees the world's largest Orthodox flock. He depicted his country’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a metaphysical struggle against a liberal agenda that included “gay parades.”

In November, Russia’s Supreme Court effectively outlawed LGBTQ+ activism, labeling what the government called the LGBTQ+ “international movement” as an extremist group and banning it in Russia.

In 2021, a survey by Russia’s top independent pollster, the Levada Center, showed that only 33% of Russians completely or somewhat agree that gay men and women should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals, a decrease from earlier years.

Belarus

Belarus’s Family Code defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.” There is also no legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Belarus in 1994, but the LGBTQ+ community faces heavy stigma and high suicide rates, advocates say.

Human rights groups report hundreds of cases of the KGB – the country’s main domestic security agency – trying to recruit gay people and threatening to out them.

Serbia and Montenegro

Serbia and Montenegro, two conservative Balkan nations where the Serbian Orthodox Church holds huge influence, have had mixed results addressing LGBTQ+ rights as part of efforts to join the European Union.

Tiny Montenegro passed a bill in 2020 allowing same-sex partnerships — not marriage and with fewer rights. In Serbia, a similar draft law never made it to a parliamentary vote.

FILE Men kiss during gay pride march in Podgorica, Montenegro (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Serbian Orthodox Church, which maintains close relations with the Russian church, has opposed the idea of same-sex marriages.

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has said he would not sign off a bill on same-sex marriages, although Serbia has had an openly lesbian prime minister for years. Activists have been campaigning for legal partnerships.

Pride marches in Serbia are routinely banned or held under tight security. In Montenegro, though same-sex partnerships are allowed, the highly male-oriented society of 620,000 people remains divided over the issue.

Romania and Moldova

Romania is one of the few European Union members that allows neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions, despite a growing social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

In 2023, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Romania had failed to enforce same-sex couples’ rights by not legally recognizing their relationships.

In early February in Romania, LGBTQ+ activists were allegedly assaulted while holding a peaceful protest outside the Bucharest headquarters of the country’s far-right AUR party.

A participant waves the rainbow flag during the gay pride march in Bucharest, Romania (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

In 2018, Romania held a referendum — backed by the Orthodox Church — on whether to narrow the constitutional definition of marriage from a ″union of spouses″ to a ″union between one man and one woman.”

Rights campaigners urged Romanians to boycott the vote, which failed due to low turnout.

In neighboring Moldova, which isn’t an EU member but has official candidate status, neither same-sex marriages nor unions are allowed.

Large majorities in both countries are Orthodox.

Bulgaria

Public opinion in Bulgaria is mostly hostile to gay people and more so to same-sex marriages. In the Balkan country, patriarchal family traditions still predominate.

The European Court of Human Rights last year found that Bulgaria’s government was violating European human rights law in failing to legally recognize same-sex couples. The court also ruled that Bulgaria is obliged to adopt legal recognition for same-sex couples, but Bulgaria shows no signs of implementing the decision.

Leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which includes about 80% of Bulgarians, condemned the ECHR ruling and called on the government not to give in.

Bulgaria’s constitution explicitly prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriage. Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament on three consecutive votes. Such a scenario seems remote.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in