Greece: Good and Bad Religious Conversions
AIM Athens, May 31, 2001
"She was baptized with her 20 teachers as godfathers," was the title of a full-page article in the Sunday edition
of the daily "Ethnos" on 13 May 2001. It was not in the "gossip" or "worldly" column though,
but in the main domestic news one, as the person who was baptized was not a usual 1- or 2-year old Greek baby but a 14-year
old Albanian. Sylvia Abedin from the Tepeleni area of Albania, a first-grade pupil at the high school in Vari (near Athens)
with very high grades, "had chosen a month earlier to join Christianity," wrote the paper. "I chose the name
of Christina to be reminding to all that I am now an Orthodox Christian" said the new convert and she added: "I
could not stand watching my classmates going to church, praying to God and receiving holy communion, while I could not fill
my soul." Christina-Sylvia, who lives in Vari with her parents Kudret and Hamide and her younger brothers Lorenzo and
Eugene, felt the need to strongly reject her previous religion, if not her parents' choice of it: "My documents mentioned
Muslim next to religion, without my knowing what that meant and why some others had chosen this reference for me." Her
two best friends, Anna Lentina and Besiana Tsani, were also baptized, reports the newspaper, which then highlights Christina's
most important quote: "I now feel so much Greek"!
A day earlier (12 May 2001), Greece's largest selling daily, "Eleftherotypia," reported on "the return
of Marianthi," a 10-year old primary school pupil who was deported with her mother two-and-a-half months earlier because
of their undocumented migrant status in the Aegean island of Kalymnos. Marianthi Haka, though, was lucky to be very popular
among her classmates, who petitioned en masse the Minister of the Aegean Nikos Sifounakis for her return. As a result, Foreign
Minister George Papandreou asked the consular authorities in Albania to grant Marianthi and her mother a visa. Upon her return,
all her classmates made a trip to (and probably sponsored by) the Minister of the Aegean's office (in Athens) to welcome back
their treasured friend. It was an almost perfect story. Almost, as a phrase in the journalist article revealed the assimilationist
approach of the community that invited Marianthi back: "They all called her yesterday a 'Greek woman of the society of
the future'"! (see related stories in "Eleftherotypia" that covered exclusively the petition for, and the return
of the pupil).
Different is the fate of a Greek citizen who decides to convert from Christianity to Islam. He will be the focus not of
sympathetic or at least neutral news coverage, but of a defamatory media campaign, alongside administrative harassment. Witness
Enver Htenas, from Kavala. A descendant of a Turkish-speaking family that was forced to move to Greece because of the Christian
religion of the head of the household in the 1920s' mandatory population exchange between Greece and Turkey, Andreas Htenas
decided to convert to the religion of the other half of his family, Islam. After a two-month preparation period, the ceremony
was held on 18 May 2001, in Komotini, by the state-appointed mufti Metso Cemali. Already during the preparatory period, news
of his intention to convert leaked and he stated to Greek Helsinki Monitor that he had received many threatening calls, including
by persons identifying themselves as working for the Greek Foreign Ministry.
Although the nearby Ministry's Xanthi office refuted to GHM such claims, the news story in Kavala's newspaper "Chronometro"
(24 May 2001) offered ample evidence to confirm the harassment claims: "The conversion, as it is logical, mobilized even
the services of the Foreign Ministry, since, according to rumors, Mr. Htenas was planning to proselytize other individuals
as well to Islamism (sic), with the aim to create a group of twenty one individuals, so that he asks that they be recognized
as Muslim community in Kavala!!!" In addition, in early May 2001, the Kavala state hospital decided that it wanted to
proceed with construction of a new building in the premises of the Htenas family home and of his neighbor's home, two of the
thousands of illegal constructions in the region. Within two days of the hospital's demand (7 May), the urban planning authorities
ordered the tearing down of the homes (9 May), notified the Htenas family a day later (10 May) and forced them to move out
by the end of May. It is an extremely unusual procedure for properties that had been known to be illegal for a decade. Given
Greek bureaucracy, the swift decision a few days after the hospital's request raises many eyebrows, as the two evicted families,
despite their request, were not given any time to relocate. In view of the general climate, it is difficult to convince Enver
Htenas that this eviction was not a result of his conversion.
The message from these three events is clear. Greek society has an aversion to Muslims, that are often considered Islamists,
i.e. fanatics; while it welcomes "good" aliens, it prefers that they also assimilate, by converting into the dominant
Orthodox Christianity. Even Greece's various weight-lifting Olympic champions, imported in the 1990s from Albania or former
Soviet countries, had not only to acquire Greek citizenship, but also to Hellenize their names and get baptized. No wonder
then that the some 80,000 foreign pupils in Greece's schools have no chance to learn their mother tongue in those schools
even if they are in sufficient numbers; or that the small community of "Muslims" -usually of Turkish-speaking Roma
origin-, Greek citizens who have migrated from Thrace to Greater Athens, are refused any Turkish-language classes in their
-formally 'multicultural'- schools, despite the insistent demand of their Greek teachers. At the same time Muslims of Greater
Athens, whatever their ethnic origin or citizenship, continue not to have a mosque to pray -unless they can afford access
to the penthouse of one luxurious hotel, specially converted for its affluent Arab clients. It appears that outside Thrace,
Muslims are not welcome!
Can a Swallow Make a Summer in "Orthodox Ayatollahs"' Greece?
AIM Athens, June 22, 2000
Hundreds of thousands of Greeks filled the main squares of the country's two largest cities, Athens and Salonica, in the
most numerous rallies held in recent memory, on 21 and 14 June respectively. Were they demonstrating their anger for the continuing
activity of the urban terrorist group "17 November" that had killed on 8 June a British diplomat, its 23rd victim
in 25 years? No! Perhaps then were they celebrating that their country was joining at long last, on 19 June, the EU's Economic
and Monetary Union (the EMU or "euro zone")? Neither! They were on the contrary protesting against the decision
to remove the mention of one's religion in the identity cards; they were also attacking the government and the intellectuals
who were, according to the Orthodox Church's leadership, planning to de-ethnicize Greece by cutting the links between Orthodoxy
This confrontation started on 8 May, when the new Minister of Justice, Professor Mihalis Stathopoulos, in an interview
to the daily "Ethnos" stated inter alia that the inscription of one's religion in the state-issued identity cards
-until now obligatory- violated the Law on the Protection of Personal Data. On 15 May, the relevant Independent Authority
established by that 1997 law issued a binding ruling that asked the state to remove religion as well as other personal data
(fingerprints, citizenship, spouse's name, and profession) from the identity cards. The removal of religion has been one of
many pending demands of a handful of human rights groups and of all religious minorities (and of hardly anyone else...). They
argued that such mention violated international human rights standards and also helped discriminate against religious minorities
in Greece, a country notorious for its religious intolerance. After all, in the last ten years, the European Court of Human
Rights had convicted Greece in cases involving all its major religious minorities (Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics,
Protestants). While a UN Special Rapporteur had submitted to the General Assembly in 1996 a report severely critical of the
lack of religious freedom in Greece.
Within a month, a deep division had been created in the country. The socialist (PASOK) government held steadfastly to
respect the Authority's regulation, but very few ministers or deputies of that party publicly backed that choice. Most stayed
silent if they did not implicitly or explicitly criticize the government's handling of the issue, if not the decision itself.
In fact, many of them in private conversations and at least two with public statements asked that the Minister of Justice
resigned to "help diffuse the crisis." On the contrary, almost all politicians of two small parliamentary parties,
the Liberals and the Progressive Left Coalition, as well as the latter's new splinter Renewal Modernizing Movement of the
Left (AEKA), became the main public backers of that decision. At the other end, the conservative New Democracy, the splinter
socialist Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI), as well as the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), directly or indirectly backed
the Church's protest and found no words to oppose the holding of theses two huge rallies. The first two even opposed the removal
of religion from the cards, preferring instead, like the Church, the optional mention.
The pictures from these rallies that were broadcast around the world, showing scores of black-robed bishops sitting on
a podium under the main speaker, the Archbishop of Greece Christodoulos, were reminiscent of similar public rallies in the
ayatollahs' Iran. The populist if not obscurantist public calls by Church leaders -who like all clergy are civil servants
in Greece- for civil disobedience ("if a law is unacceptable it should not be applied" and "the Scripture is
above the law") were in stark contrast with the country's entrance to the club of modernist and secularist states that
are abolishing borders and currencies, the EU's EMU. Likewise for the Archbishop's decision, on 22 June, to boycott the state
reception marking the latter historical accession, perhaps to remain consistent with his and his bishops' repeated eurosceptic
if not europhobic arguments made in the course of the last month.
Indeed, the Church's attacks against the abolition of the inscription of religion in the identity cards amplified the
latent insecure, xenophobic, anti-Western, intolerant and anti-Semitic traits of Greek public culture. The "identity
card crisis" was presented by the Church and most of its followers as an "identity crisis." Abolishing the
mention in the cards was equated to banning the public demonstration of one's religiosity. Since the Minister of Justice -a
renowned academic and human rights activist but not a politician- had been a prolific writer on the need to modernize the
church-state relations, all his past academic suggestions were suddenly publicized by the Church in an effort to mobilize
its followers. Like many human rights and legal experts, Stathopoulos had previously advocated a large series of measures
that would make the state neutral towards the various religions. Naturally, some of these reforms would lead to the loss of
the privileged status the Church has had in the modern Greek state.
To counter such changes, the Church equated the loss of privileges with an "attack against Orthodoxy;" and since
"Hellenism and Orthodoxy are inseparable" the aim of the reformers was supposed to be the de-Hellenization of the
country. Since, regrettably, Greek public culture has been characterized by a sense of insecurity of the Greek people, similar
arguments can quickly mobilize a large section of the population. As they did in the early 1990s, when the -equally imagined-
"Macedonian irredentist threat" mobilized Greeks against its newly independent neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia,
and -in the process- against its assorted alleged Western supporters.
In both instances, these nationalist and retrograde mobilizations legitimized forces until then considered reactionary
and extremist, allowing them to join the mainstream. As a result of this "mainstream extremism in a country that tolerates
intolerance," anti-Semitism became once again part of the acceptable public dialogue. The "Jewish lobby" was
held responsible for this "plot against Hellenism and Orthodoxy," by at least two deputies elected with the two
main parties, as well as by Church publications. Moreover, such climate may have contributed to the resurgence of anti-Semitic
actions, like the desecration of scores of graves in the Greece's major Jewish cemetery in Nikaia (Greater Athens) and the
inscription of nazi slogans at the home of late Melina Mercouri and her Jewish husband Jules Dassin, in late May. The condemnations
of the latter acts were scarce and went widely unreported in Greece, while there was absolutely no condemnation by the Church
or by political parties and Parliament of the multiple anti-Semitic statements. On the contrary, the Church used the television
infrastructure of the most notorious anti-Semite deputy, George Karatzaferis, to broadcast its Athens rally...
Despite the calls by many PASOK politicians that the government postpones the implementation of the regulation for the
new religion-free identity cards, Prime Minister Costas Simitis appears determined to have the new cards issued within a month.
If so, the move of Minister Mihalis Stathopoulos, against a very negative framework where there was not even a serious intellectual
debate to prepare such action, would have been successful. However, this is only the first step towards the badly needed overhaul
of the Greek legal system and administrative practice so that this country would come to sincerely respect the human rights
of all its citizens. Especially the rights of its minorities, the presence of many of which is yet to even be acknowledged.
The Church's strong reaction to the first reform really aims not so much at overturning it, as to show its power (hence its
decision to collect millions of signatures against that reform) and prevent other more important and profound reforms. The
Minister of Justice raised many hopes with his first action that he could be the swallow that can, against all odds, make
a summer for Greece. The "identity card reform" only helped bring the country out of the winter though. The long
way towards summer is filled with many "Orthodox ayatollahs" and assorted anti-reformist forces. If the swallow
does not acquire Herculean powers, and is joined by many other swallows along the way, it may end up been swallowed by the
That was a picture of 2000-2003 Greece. Now in January 2005...
the 'swallows of reform' have gone away and the party of New Democracy is in power ('Thanks God" the Archbishop said
when he met for first time the new prime minister Caramanlis, who has signed the Church's petition for the inscription of
one's religion in the state-issued identity cards) and exercise it hand in hand with the vultures of the Orthodox Church,
that is the 'State Religion', really!