NEWS

Religious freedom ‘improvement’

Religious freedom in Greece saw a general improvement over the last year, according to representatives of religious minorities in the country, a US State Department report said. Overall, leaders of minority religions noted a general improvement in government tolerance during the period covered by this report, citing fewer detentions for proselytizing; the conscientious objector law; and an effective, well-run Ombudsman’s office, which successfully handled an increasing number of cases, the report declared. Released this month by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the International Religious Freedom Report covers the period from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001. In its seven-page report on Greece, the State Department notes that the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. At the same time it underscores that while the Constitution provides for the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice and the government generally respects this right, non-Orthodox groups sometimes face administrative obstacles or encounter legal restrictions on religious practice. The State Department devoted a good part of its report to the national debate that was sparked by the government’s decision last summer to remove mention of religious affiliation on national identity cards, a debate which still continues though the government stands firm. Archbishop Christodoulos vociferously criticized the government and launched a campaign to collect signatures to petition the government to allow religious affiliation as an option on national identity cards, the State Department report notes. In March 2001, Archbishop Christodoulos blamed ‘the Jews’ for the government’s decision to remove notation of religious affiliation on national identity cards. The government distanced itself from Christodoulos’s statement. The report also highlights the two religious protests that Archbishop Christodoulos organized in Thessaloniki and Athens in June 2000, with both drawing over 100,000 supporters, as well as that the Orthodox Church alleges it has collected 3 million signatures for its petition. In Greece, a country where the Constitution establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ (Greek Orthodox) as the prevailing religion, approximately 94 to 97 percent of the population identify themselves, at least nominally, with the Greek Orthodox faith, there are approximately 500,000 to 800,000 are Old Calendrists. According to the State Department, of the estimated population of 10.9 million people, some 98,000 Muslims are officially estimated to be living in the country – though some Muslims claim to number 130,000 to 140,000 nationwide. The report underscores that the Greek State maintains official figures only for the Greek Orthodox and the Muslim religions and, according to the State Department, that Greece is also home to 50,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 50,000 Catholics; 30,000 Protestants, including evangelists; 5,000 Jews; 300 Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), while Scientologists claim 12,000 members, a figure observers believe to be high. Approximately 250 members of the Baha’i faith are scattered throughout the country, the majority of whom are Greek citizens of non-Greek ethnicity. There are also small populations of Anglicans, Baptists and non-denominational Christians, the report states. The State Department finally notes that the majority of non-citizen residents are not Greek Orthodox. The largest of these groups is the Albanians (approximately 700,000, including legal and illegal residents); of these, a few are Orthodox and Roman Catholics but the majority are non-religious. Although no major incidents were recorded during the period covered by the report, non-Orthodox groups sometimes faced administrative obstacles or encountered legal restrictions on religious practice. According to the State Department, on October 17, 2000 the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs rejected an application from the Scientologists of Greece for recognition and a permit for a house of prayer on the grounds that Scientology is not a religion. The report notes that, the Scientologists reapplied for a house of prayer permit in late February 2000 in a step toward gaining recognition as a religion since, according to its president, the group chose previously to register as a philosophical organization because legal counsel advised that the government would not recognize Scientology as a religion. The Scientologists appealed the ministry’s decision with the Council of State and the case is scheduled to be heard in December. Under the Constitution, only the Orthodox Church and the Jewish and Muslim religions are considered by law to be legal entities of private law. Under current laws, the establishment of houses of prayer for religions other than the Orthodox Church, Judaism, or Islam is regulated by general provisions of the Civil Code regarding corporations. Thus, these religions cannot, as religious entities, own property; the property must belong to a specifically created legal entity rather than to the church itself. Other administrative-related incidents that are included in the State Department’s report include certain alleged career limitations that non-Orthodox citizens faced within the military, police, and firefighting forces, as well as the civil service, because of their religion, and reports of difficulties in renewing visas by foreign representatives of several religious denominations, including Protestants and Mormons. Finally, under the section Abuses of Freedom of Religion, the State Department notes: Church leaders report that their permanent members (non-missionaries) do not encounter discriminatory treatment. However, the report continues, police occasionally detained Mormons and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (on average once every two weeks) after receiving complaints that the individuals were engaged in proselytizing. As noted in the report, in most cases these individuals were held for several hours at a police station and then released with no charges filed, while many reported that they were not allowed to call their lawyers and that they were verbally abused by police officers for their religious beliefs. No court cases against proselytizing were heard during the period covered by this report.