Greece Changes Law on Conscientious Objectors
By “Awake!” correspondent in Greece
A NEW law adopted by the Greek Parliament finally has brought a measure of relief to this land’s conscientious objectors. Until this law was passed, those who for reasons of conscience objected to taking up war weapons were subject to imprisonment, not just once, but a second, third and even a fourth time for the same reason.
The problem involves Jehovah’s Witnesses primarily. Because of their strong belief in God’s laws and love of their fellow humans, they will not take up arms and share in the conflicts of worldly nations. As a result, they have suffered inhumane treatment for many years in Greece. But now, through a specific provision voted by Parliament, conscientious objectors who refuse military service and are sentenced to prison are exempt from further military service requirements after their release from prison.
How long is this single term of imprisonment to be? The new law specifies four years. This is twice as long as the required two-year compulsory term for military service.
What led the Greek government to modify its stand regarding these conscientious objectors? Has this matter come up suddenly? No, for the history of this problem goes back many decades.
Not a New Issue
Although Jehovah’s Witnesses always were conscientious objectors in Greece, the issue was not made prominent earlier in this century. There were several reasons for this. One was the fact that there were relatively few of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Greece until after World War I. So it was not a big issue with the Greek government. Also, in the 1920’s and 1930’s Europe was still in revulsion against the horrors of the “Great War.” So the stand that the Witnesses took against war service was not widely publicized in Greece.
In 1940 and 1941 the problem grew when Greece became involved in World War II, first with Italy and then with Germany. Conscientious objectors who were Jehovah’s Witnesses were then sentenced by military courts to penalties of from 15 years to life imprisonment. But when Greece was overrun and occupied by German troops, those sentences were not continued.
At the end of World War II, Greece was liberated. But the problem of conscientious objectors became more acute. This was due to the civil war that engulfed Greece between 1947 and 1950. Because of the prevailing atmosphere, a number of conscientious objectors who were Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to death by military courts. Thus, in the area of Larissa, John Tsukaris was executed on February 10, 1948. In the area of Nauplia, George Orphanidis was executed on February 11, 1949.
These executions aroused much adverse public opinion in different parts of the world. As a result of this public outcry, other death sentences were commuted to imprisonment—from 20 years to life.
Most reprehensible in all of this were the clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. They continually pressured government officials to maintain the death penalty against the Witnesses. It was as if they demanded ‘the head of John the Baptist on a platter,’ wanting the ruling elements to do the dirty work of executing Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But due to strong protests raised by various organizations, and intervention by prominent persons in the world, the clergy could not have their way. Especially helpful was a letter from Britain’s House of Lords to the then Greek War Minister, P. Canellopulos. These efforts contributed to a more subdued treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the military courts.
New Type of Cruelty
During the decade of the 1960’s, cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses became the object of another type of cruel treatment. These conscientious objectors were first sentenced to prison for terms of from four years to four years and eleven months. But, when completing that first term, they were again tried for the same reason and again sentenced to another similar prison term. When this second sentence was completed, the process was repeated for a third and even a fourth time. These penalties were rightly referred to as “chain penalties.”
Then, in 1966, during peacetime, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christus Kazanis, was sentenced to death by an Athens court-martial for refusal to bear arms. This unexpected decision raised a great outcry in Greece and in other countries. Greek embassies everywhere were flooded by storms of protest over this astonishing sentence. Multitudes of letters and cablegrams of appeal were sent to the Greek government. As a result, the Kazanis case was reviewed and the death sentence was commuted to four-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment.
In 1974 a change of government took place in Greece. A democratic form of rule was established. Owing to this more open type of rule, cases involving the repeated sentencing of Jehovah’s Witnesses became more widely known throughout the world. Various organizations now took up the struggle against these inhumane sentences.
Among those involved were the European Committee for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Council of Europe. Representatives of these organizations visited Greek military prisons to investigate. It was agreed by all competent persons who looked into the matter that the situation was utterly intolerable for a democratic country. And it was particularly inconsistent that Greece, known as the “cradle of democracy,” should have as part of its law such flagrant violations of human rights.
Publicity against this unjust treatment grew. Prominent officials in the Greek government, as well as journalists, began to publicize the situation. It was also pointed out by such persons that this treatment of decent citizens constituted a detriment to the national interests of Greece, since it resulted in disrespect for the country’s name.
During 1977 the Council of Europe, motivated by humanistic ideals, conducted discussions about the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Greece. A report submitted to the Council’s Parliamentary Session singled out Greece as violating the human rights of these Christians more than any other country.
Finally, the matter was debated in the Greek Parliament. One deputy, Mrs. Virginia Tsuderos, proposed amendments to the existing law. These would restrict the penalties for objectors to armed service to one prison term only. Another deputy, Mr. A. Kaklamanis, pointed out the great harm that had come to Greece’s reputation because of this issue. He noted that the repeated sentencing violated the International Treaty of Rome and also the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Various deputies pointed out that nowhere in Europe was such treatment being handed out to conscientious objectors. It was observed that in many countries, including Communist lands, only one prison term is inflicted.
After discussing the matter thoroughly, the Greek Parliament voted to adopt a new law ending the repeated sentencing of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It decreed that only one prison term could be handed out. It would be a term of four years, twice the length of military service. While this is still harsh treatment in comparison to other lands, it is a vast improvement over what had existed before.
The humanitarian decision was condemned by representatives of the Orthodox Church in Greece. High clergymen severely criticized the government’s action. The clergy appealed to the government not to apply the new law voted by Parliament.
Once more, these activities exposed the hypocrisy of the clergy. Here were men claiming to represent Christ, the “Prince of Peace,” but who wanted peaceful Christians to continue suffering because of obeying Christ’s teachings!
This inconsistency and hypocrisy did not go unnoticed. A religious editor of the newspaper Kathimerini, in its issue of October 22, 1977, wrote an article refuting the clergy’s viewpoints. For instance, when the clergy protested that the new law would weaken support given to the combat part of the Greek army, the writer observed: “This is rather funny to be believed. We have been military men and we all know that we even count the days left when we will be discharged from the army. Only a religious fanatic or a fool would agree to serve for two more years [in jail] in order to avoid taking up weapons.”
The editor further chastised the clergy for trying to act as a “super parliament.” He said that they had no business trying to pressure the government on matters that they were not competent to judge.
None of the clergy’s pressures had any effect. The new law stood, and was quickly applied. Forty-two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were already in prison serving repeated sentences were released. Four of them were released because they had been in prison for four years or more, while 38 others were released pending a new trial, since they had not served four years yet, as specified by the new law. New sentencing will likely be required for them to complete the four-year term.
Thus, the Greek government has adjusted its manner of dealing with conscientious objectors. It has ended the “chain penalties” that the Christian witnesses of Jehovah have suffered for so many years.
The new law is a credit to the government of Greece. But credit also must go to the sincere Christians who held to what they knew was right even in the face of severe persecution.