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Ongoing Persecution of Pagans in Modern Greece


by J. S. Parker

According to our constitution, Americans have the right to religious freedom. But according to Greek law, Greeks do not. In a country where religion and state are intermixed, and only three religions are recognized, smaller religious groups cannot practice freely. Groups pressing for freedom include pagan followers, who cannot practice their customs in the country where their ideology began. The pagans have struggled for recognition and freedom since as early as 180 B.C., and continue their fight today.

The word "pagan" originates from the Greek word "pagos," which means "rural." Though its usage changed with time, it gained prevalence under Roman rule, when the soldiers called civilians "paganus" and early Christians looked down on people who didn't go to church, calling them "pagani." To differentiate today, these pre-Christian peoples are sometimes called "paleopagan," with modern versions of paganism occasionally referred to as "neopagan."

The earliest written European records from around 1500 B.C.E. reflect the origins of paganism and come from people on Crete who looked to gods to explain the mysteries of nature. Poseidon, the god of the sea, earthquakes and storms, was born during these years. Other gods followed, known today as the 12 Greek gods, including Zeus. These gods had practical functions in everyday life and acted like humans, so people could relate to them. Nature also dominated religious imagery of the time. A single tree frond was an icon in early Cretan sanctuaries. But this Hellenic religion was banned from the Middle Ages to the Ottoman occupation.

In 212, after the Second Punic War ended, a Roman order went out decreeing all religions must be registered. No one was to worship in public unless their religion had been approved by the chief government pontiff. Today in Greece, things aren't that different for people seeking to worship freely. The Greek Orthodox Church became Greece's official religion in the fourth century, and has repressed other religions ever since. In his March 1997 article in the journal Ratio Juris, Charalambos Papastathis argues that "the cohabitation of an established Church and non-established ones is bound to generate unfair discrimination and abridges religious tolerance, which is a European achievement and an indispensable part of Western political and constitutional culture."

With 98 percent of the country's population recognized as members, the Greek Church has the power to keep two laws on the books that severely restrict other religions. These two laws that were enacted during the Dictator John Metaxas' rule in 1938 still govern today.

The first prohibits converting Greek Orthodox followers to other religions. Greek Law No 1363/38, with amendment Law No. 1672/39 states: "Anyone engaging in proselytism shall be liable to imprisonment and a fine between 1,000 and 50,000 drachmas; he shall, moreover be subject to police supervision for a period of between six months and one year to be fixed by the court when convicting the offender."

The second law requires anybody that is not Orthodox to obtain church licenses from both the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and the local Orthodox bishops. However, the Ministry defines different religions under different laws. According to the law, only the Orthodox Church, Judaism and Islam are recognized as "legal persons of public law," and are therefore recognized. The "legal persons of private law" category includes all other religious groups, including Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and pagans.

Because the minorities are considered private and not public, they cannot own joint property -- making it difficult for them to establish a church -- or representthemselves corporately in court. And minorities have struggled to retain their voice, in the face of "cleansing" of Greek territory. Agreements with neighboring Turkey and Bulgaria to exchange minority populations have lessened the numbers of the non-Orthodox in Greece. However, this changed somewhat when a wave of Middle Eastern refugees came to the country in 2001.

By limiting these religious minorities, the church plays a powerful role in influencing policy within the government. Separation of church and state would require a constitutional amendment: Paragraph 1 of the Constitution (2001) says, "Greek Orthodox dogma is the prevailing religion." It goes on to state that "The Church of Greece is inseparably united in doctrine with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and with all other Orthodox churches" and that "the Church is self-administered and autocephalous."

However, these two laws contradict Phrase 2 of the Greek Constitution, which states: "There shall be freedom to practice any known religion; individuals shall be free to perform their rites of worship without hindrance and under protection of the law. The performance of rites of worship must not prejudice public order or public morals."

These contradictory and repressing laws first brought a lot of attention from the international community in 1996 when United Nations Special Rapporteur onReligious Intolerance, Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, visited Greece from June 18-25. He found "limitations on freedom of worship which are inconsistent with internationally established human rights norms." His findings also concluded "the constitutional provisions prohibiting proselytism to be inconsistent with the 1981 (UN) declaration and stresses the need for greater respect for internationally recognized human rights norms, including freedom to convert and freedom to manifest one's religion or belief, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private."

Then in 1998, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Greek state for violating Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights in a proselytism case. In his ruling, Judge DeMeyer said, "The law in issue in the present case is contrary to the Convention in its very principle, since it directly encroaches on the very essence of the freedom everyone must have to manifest his religion." Greece is the only European country to ban proselytism and the only country to have such a ruling from the human rights court. While the law was not declared unconstitutional, the Greek government was fined 1 million drachmas.

Around the same time of this discrimination recognition, a resurgence of interest in paganism was born in Greece. Spearheading this revival was Tryphon Olympios, who founded Ellinon Epistrofi, or "The Return to Hellenes Movement." He taught philosophy in Stockholm for 18 years before returning home, changing his name and beginning the cult. He first gained media attention when he married his second wife in a pagan ceremony in 1987. Other groups have since emerged, begun in part by people who have also lived overseas and experienced religious freedom. These include the Committee for Hellenic Religion, the Greek Society of the Attic Friends, the Apollonian Society and the Committee of the Greek Religion. In June 2004, the World Council of Ethnic Religions (WCER) had its seventh congress in Greece and was hosted by the Greek pagan umbrella group Ypato Symboulio Hellinon Ethnikon (YSEE). Spartan schools, Hellenist magazines and classical theatre have emerged as well.

All these groups support the separation of church and state, and oppose the governing Socialist party PASOK, which suppresses teaching of ancient Greek inschools. While these groups share the common goal of having ancient Hellenic traditions recognized, they do not necessarily look at it as religion. Olympios prefers to think of "the return" as an ideology. His followers enjoy discussion groups, reenacting ancient Greek ceremonies and attending an annual celebration on Mt. Olympus. Marina Tontis, who founded the Apollonian Society after living in Chicago, says her philosophical club discusses, but does not believe in, mythology. "If people want to believe in the gods, they can, but we don't believe that," Tontis says. "We support the investigation of our cultural background."

The exact reason for the resurgence is not known. However, globalization, secularization, economic pressure and immigrants have all contributed, according to Zissis Papdimitrious, a sociologist at the University of Thessaloniki. "The Greek people are in a kind of a transformation," he says. "As a country, as a people, we are too small to be important economically. We have to play a cultural role in the world, and to play this role we have to have a very strong identity."

But despite this attempt to create identity, pagans and other groups face difficulty in being recognized. After the European Court's human rights ruling, the powerful Christodoulos Paraskevaides became archbishop of Athens and all of Greece in 1998. With his elevation, the church has become a stronger activist in politics. "The traditional prelates of the church didn't make themselves conspicuous, especially in politics," says Thanos Veremis, director of the Hellenic Center for European Studies. "I think Christodoulos is somewhat of a maverick in that sense." Ioannis Koliopoulos, professor modern history at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, agrees about the archbishop. "He is educated and ambitious," Koliopoulos says. "He wants to change the role of the church. He wants it to play a decisive part in shaping Greece's national life."

The first campaign the archbishop led was against the government initiative to have religious affiliations removed from Greek identification cards in 2001. Hecollected 3.5 million signatures in a country of 10.6 million people to prevent the measure and rallied priests to press their flocks into signing the petition to join the "holy war." But the Council of State declared "identifying one's religion on a public document is unconstitutional," with the government spokesperson Dimitris Reppas saying "The issue is closed." The government responded in part to protests from the World Jewish Congress, which pointed out that when the Nazis occupied Greece, they used the cards to identify Jews.

But despite the government not supporting the identification initiative, under the archbishop's rule, the church continues to disregard religious freedom attempts. A campaign for the recognition of Greek Religion Dodecatheon, or the "Religion of the 12 Gods," has twice been ignored for official recognition by the government. The 2004 American documentary called "I Still Worship Zeus" depicts Hellenic followers and according to filmmaker Jamil Said, does not name the people depicted because of their fear of identifying themselves in the face of persecution. A press release from The Supreme Council of Gentile Hellenes cites threats against the life of its members and a bookstore burning. The Greek Society of Attic Friends claim 40,000 members, but were unsuccessful when they asked for recognition as a legal religion and were denied the right to build a temple in Athens.

Other groups have suffered as well, who have the support of a religious network worldwide and who are elsewhere strongly affiliated. In 1986, authorities filed charges under the proselytism law against Christian evangelical leader Costas Macris, but he was eventually exonerated. Four years ago, 11 evangelical congregations were charged with operating without permits, but district court later ruled in their favor. In the spring of 2001, both Protestant radio stations in Athens got shut down by Ministry of Press and Media. A Seattle musical group, the Scarlet Journey, performed in Greece recently, and the police ordered the group to leave the stage.

Even though the Orthodox Church discriminates against both evangelical Christians and pagans, the evangelicals have voiced their opposition to neopaganism in Greece. "Our greatest problem in Greece is that Greek society is totally secular, hedonistic and apathetic toward all things Christian," says Fotis Romeos, general secretary of the Greek Evangelical Alliance.

With world and media attention focused on Greece with the recent Olympics, pressure against the pagans and other unsanctioned groups may lessen. In February: anti-Olympic activists calling themselves "Phevos and Athena" (names of Olympic mascots) firebombed government vehicles to protest meetings surrounding the Olympics. International press after the Olympics opened strongly denounced the caricatures as well.

In 2001, a pagan Summer Solstice ceremony was broadcast by nationwide TV station Ant-1 from island of Samothrace. Last June, the 1,000 followers of the Return to Hellenes Movement celebrated ancient Greek rituals on their annual visit to Mount Olympus and gained international attention. An August 13 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer focused on the diminished role of the church in the Olympic Games opening ceremony. At the games, the archbishop was seated with heads of state, but two other prominent patriarchs who were to be placed several rows behind them refused to attend, calling the seating a "slap to their dignity." The ceremonies centered on the pagan rituals of Greece and the 12 gods that the church has so vehemently opposed.

Before the opening ceremonies, two religious leaders denied the 12 gods' existence. "We don't believe in the 12 gods," says Father Apostolos Mihail, parish priest at the Church of the Prophet Elias in Athens. "They do not exist here." The spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Church agreed. "From what we know, (the opening ceremonies) are going to be a theatrical performance, nothing more, because the religion of the ancient Greeks died 2,000 years ago," says Father Epifanios Economou. "And it died on its own, starting with the philosophers Plato and Socrates, who denounced it, because they were searching for the real truth. They were searching for seriousness in their religious faith."

But what Economou doesn't mention is that in 399 B.C.E., Socrates was put to death for corrupting youth of Athens for questioning tradition. In fact, his freethought became known as "daimon," or a demon. Even today, the Greek Church calls heresy "deisidaimon" or literally, "fear of demons."

Before Socrates died, he said, "Wisdom begins in wonder." Today's Greek pagans and others around the world continue to search for that wonder and truth in their own personal expressions, despite persecution in the country where their gods were born.

Copyright 2004 by the article's author

According to our constitution, Americans have the right to religious freedom. But according to Greek law, Greeks do not.
J. S. Parker