A couple of months ago, I was introduced to a great book by my friend Dr. Gerald Bray, which is about the state of various minorities in Greece (Minorities in Greece: Aspects of a Plural Society [Edited by Rochard Clogg; London: Hurst & Company, 2002]). It is edited by Richard Clogg, a fellow of St. Antony’s College in Oxford, who has collected a number of essays by renowned scholars on people groups such as Old Calendarists, Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims (Turks, Pomaks and Gypsies), Armenians, Vlachs, Slavs and Sarakatsani.
The aim of the book is to disperse the rosy picture often presented by Greeks about the Greek attitudes towards these minorities and expose the big elephant in the room: “Orthodox Christianity and the Greek language have been deemed to be the key determinants of Greek identity.” My personal aim is to popularize such significant works which give a voice to the voiceless in the hope that minorities will be empowered and encouraged that “somebody notices”, even if that somebody does not include their own countrymen. Moreover, no one will seek treatment if attention is not drawn to a disease.
Article 3 of the 1975 Constitution declares the dominant religion in Greece to be the ‘Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ, recognizing as its head Our Lord Jesus Christ’. Article 13 guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice in respect of all known religions but proselytism is proscribed (p. ix). However, the issue of minorities in Greece indicates that national integration is failing and needs to be addressed. Nikiforos Diamandouros, a leading analyst of Greek political culture wrote:
The virtual identification of hellenicity with Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has made it very difficult for such religious minorities as the Roman Catholics, the Protestants, the Jews and the Muslims to become fully integrated into the dominant Greek culture. Even today, when the traumatic experiences associated with the irredentist struggles of the turn of the century and of the civil war years are fading, these groups remain, for the vast majority of the ethnically homogeneous Greek population, at worst unknown and at best obscure and alien entities. (p. ix-x)
My focus is the Evangelical Greek community on which John O. Iatrides has given a well-rounded treatment in his article included in the book. A community which comprises less than 3 percent of Greece’s population will naturally be of no concern to the majority. “Although the Protestants of Greece are not the primary target of intolerance, they nevertheless feel its effects, at least in part because of wide-spread ignorance and confusion concerning their identity and beliefs.” (p. 48)
Iatrides deals with the older history of intolerance towards Evangelicals, as well as the new, but I will try to present some of his research on the most recent years. It appears that heightened intolerance in recent years finds its roots in a campaign launched in the beginning of the 80’s:
On 23 September 1983 the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece launched a new ‘anti-heresy’ campaign’ with a circular addressed to all Orthodox parishes and to the country’s armed forces, warning them of ‘provocative proselytizing activity by agents of multinational and Protestant organizations, societies and Eastern religions’. Naming first the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the circular included among the ‘heresies of protestant origin’ the following: ‘Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Free Evangelical Churches, Presbyterians, etc.’ (p. 48-49)
The list of heresies is long, including groups associated with magic, parapsychology and Hare Krishna, all lumped together as equally threatening to the fabric of the Greek society. With the stroke of his pen the head of the Greek Orthodox Church could invalidate the Protestant Reformation, and disseminate this attitude through his circulars to every clergy and civil servant. An example of its effects is when in July 1984 the Metropolitan of Kavala demanded that the police stopped the musical performance titled “Freedom and Joy” of the Greek Missionary Union with charges of “intense proselytization against Greek society.” (p. 48)
The European Union has not been a silent observer, as Iatrides notes:
Resolutions of the European Parliament and decisions of the European Court (concerning the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses) have already put Greece on notice that its performance on the issue of religious freedom does not measure up to the community’s standards. (p. 50)
The practical effect of these European Court rulings on the Greek system is as yet uncertain, but what is certain is that the problem is symptomatic of a confused national identity and patriotism. Iatrides raises the inevitable questions:
Who decides what defines Greekness, and by what criteria? Can a non-Orthodox citizen of Greece, who feels and conducts himself as a Greek, expect to be treated as a full-fledged Greek by the authorities of his own country?
The reformed faith of Greek evangelicals clashes with the “historical and prevailing concept of Greekness, which defines ethnic identity in terms of the Orthodox Church.” (p. 55) This attitude is reflected in the statement of Stelios Papathemelis, subsequently Minister of Public Order, who in 1992 characterized the work of TV evangelists as ‘anti-Orthodox and therefore anti-Greek propaganda’. (p. 55)
Iatrides records numerous incidents of religious intolerance and legal action against Evangelicals, which I could not report for lack of space, but what emerges from the survey is how prominent Greek Evangelicals have been outstanding Greek patriots and served the interests of Greece, but their Greekness was nevertheless repeatedly questioned due to their religious beliefs.
It is hard to know numbers regarding this religious minority:
A December 1992 Athens press account on religious groups reported 12,000-15,000 ‘Protestants’ (named as the third officially recognized Christian dogma), of whom the main group was said to be the Greek Evangelical Church with 5000, including children. The rest were presumably Protestants of other denominations, including Pentecostals, with the more conservative of whom the Evangelicals maintain polite if distant contact. (p. 56)
More statistics became available in 1994 by the authors of Greece: religious intolerance and discrimination, published by the Brussels-based organization Human Rights Without Frontiers. They gave the figure of 16,000-18,000 Protestants, making no attempt to distinguish between Evangelicals and Pentecostals (p. 56). In essence, the Greek Evangelical Churches are independent, self-sustaining and self-governing entities. They are not branches of foreign Protestant Churches. They espouse the Nicene Creed (325 AD), celebrate two sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion), they accept as authentic Gospel only the scriptures of the Old Testament (39 Books) and the New Testament (27 Books) and do not regard ‘Tradition’ as divinely inspired and having the same authority as the Books of the Bible. Moreover, Iatrides notes that:
Since the 1980’s growing attention has been paid to social problems and modest programs have been started in the large cities for alcoholics and drug addicts. The Church in Kerkyra has recently combined relief work with religious activity in post-communist Albania.
Many more social undertakings could be added to Iatrides’ list, which testify to how Greek Evangelicals have been very active agents in benefitting Greek society, only to reap the charges of proselytism in the face of Orthodox insecurities.
An important detail in the 1975 Constitution is that the prohibition of ‘proselytism’ protects “the individual right of freedom of religious conscience against attempts at conversion by what the penal code labels ‘false means’.” (p. 58) Iatrides says that,
this change implies that the banning of proselytism is directed at all religions and thus is fair and impartial. However, since the meaning of ‘false means’ is not specified by law, it is left to courts to decide what in fact constitutes proselytization. (p. 58-59)
One need only look at what the Greek courts have declared to be ‘false means’ to realize the absurdity in the system: “the mailing of books, the ‘skillful interpretation’ of the Gospel, and the disparity in the level of education between the person preaching and the one being preached to.” (p. 59)
Greece is already far from the lines set out by the European Union. Iatrides suggests that,
if it genuinely supports the content and implications of the Maastricht accords, Greece will have to bring itself into line with its partners on a variety of issues, including freedom of religion. It will have to cultivate a pluralistic society in all respects, including matters of religious faith, and turn the myth of the separation of Church and state into reality. (p. 61)
Two things that must be done, according to Iatrides, are:
(a) the constitutional prohibition of proselytism must be annulled, making it impossible for the courts to serve as the tools of the dominant Church. The religious freedom which the Orthodox Church enjoys in the western world must be extended by them to religious minorities in their own country. It is ironic when Orthodox prelates declare that their “task in North America is not limited to serving the immigrant and ethnic communities, but has as its very heart the missionary task of making disciples in the nations of Canada and the United States.”
(b) the nation’s educational curriculum will have to incorporate the simple lesson that although the overwhelming majority of Greeks are Orthodox, one need not be Orthodox to be a good Greek. (p. 61-62)
To Iatrides’ suggestions I would like to add the role of the Greek media, which should also avoid serving as tools of the dominant religion but be impartial, as they claim to be, in presenting the issue of minorities, their wishes and demands. Silence on the issue of minorities and failure to represent them publicly because of their “size” constitutes partiality and is interpreted as “siding” with the majority religion.
My call to Christians, and especially Evangelicals, is that we start supporting the cause of minorities other than ourselves. Let us begin by leading the way in understanding the difficulties of various minorities in Greece and helping them to be respected and heard. I call the Orthodox to defend the rights of religious minorities, and I call each minority to defend the rights of minorities which are worse off than themselves.