Greek Church Threatens Violence and Blocks Convention
LOCATED near Piraeus, the port city of Athens, Greece, is the “Stadium of Peace and Friendship.” Yet, said the Athens newspaper Ta Nea, “a war atmosphere prevailed yesterday in Piraeus, where the well-known bishop Callinicos . . . gave orders that all church bells should ring. There was such chaos that many citizens of the port city supposed that something bad had happened; they even thought it might be a war!”
Why did this happen in connection with a sports stadium said to be dedicated to “Peace and Friendship”? The commotion was caused by a vicious outburst on the part of clergymen of the Greek Orthodox Church. A bishop took the lead in threatening to rally his parishioners to march on the stadium and seize it by force to prevent others from using it.
The bishop supposedly represents the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Yet, he threatened violent mob action in defiance of law and order, in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ. Why? Because stadium officials had given permission to peaceful and law-abiding Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, to have a convention there in late summer. Contracts had been signed, and Jehovah’s Witnesses had already spent some 6,000 hours cleaning the stadium in preparation for their convention.
As an editor commented in Ta Nea: “Callinicos even threatens to seize the Stadium if the permission is not withdrawn; he is planning Masses, preachings, litanies, and the like, whereas I have to admit that I can’t understand much of it. . . . I can only wonder at the situation because the year we are in is 1988, only 12 years before the 21st century, and the Constitution of the country safeguards religious tolerance.”
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of worship and assembly, the clergy demanded that permission be withdrawn. Officials caved in to the threats. They opted not to guarantee law and order, and they would not uphold the Constitution of Greece. As a result, the rental contract was not upheld.
So just three days before the convention, the right of the Witnesses to assemble at the stadium was denied. The innocent were victimized, whereas the guilty who threatened to break the law and incite mob action were upheld. A perversion of justice indeed!
Such opposition is not new. For decades the Orthodox Church in Greece has fanatically opposed Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have never retaliated with any unlawful acts. Even in recent times, priest-led mobs have attacked Jehovah’s Witnesses as they assembled peacefully. Clergymen and members of their churches have reviled, harassed, and assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they have pressured the courts to arrest and imprison them for their preaching activity. Yet, Greece is a democracy, and its Constitution guarantees freedom of worship.
‘A Known, Christian Religion’
Courts in Greece have judged that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a ‘well-known, Christian religion’ entitled to the protection afforded by the Constitution of Greece. For example, in 1987 the Magistrates’ Court in Hania, Crete (a province of Greece), declared: “Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . constitute a known religion and an approved sect.” It also said that their preaching activity is not the kind of proselytizing forbidden by the Constitution. As the court said: “Proselytism is not the mere sale of [Witness] literature from house to house, or an invitation for a theological discussion.”
The court acknowledged that Jehovah’s Witnesses come under the provisions of Article 13, paragraph 1, of the Greek Constitution. That article promises freedom of religious conscience for everyone in Greece. The court noted that this includes an individual’s “freedom to believe in the religion of his liking,” as well as the “right to change, even repeatedly,” one’s religion. The court also called to mind that “the freedom of expressing one’s religious beliefs is more especially safeguarded by Article 9, paragraph 2, of the Treaty of Rome dated April 11, 1950, ‘on the protection of human rights.’”
The Hania court added: “The freedom of expressing one’s religious beliefs is also protected by Article 14, paragraph 1, of the 1975 Constitution: ‘Everyone may express and spread by word of mouth, in writing, and in print, his meditations.’” The court then concluded: “The matter of preserving the Orthodox Christian faith does not solely concern the clergyman and the theologian, but any conscientious believer.” And it noted that the “magazines ‘Watchtower’ and ‘Awake!’ are lawfully circulating.”
Similarly, a Greek appeals court said in its decision 354/1987 that Jehovah’s Witnesses “constitute a ‘known religion’ in the sense of Article 13, paragraph 2, of the Constitution.” The court observed that the “contrast of the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the fundamental principles . . . of the [Greek] Orthodox creed is not enough to make one consider [Witness] teachings contrary to public order.” It also noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christian, “since Jesus Christ constitutes the central figure of their doctrines.”
Dark Ages Mentality
Yet, with all such court decisions, with all the supposed protections of the Constitution, the freedom of the Greek people once again has been trampled on because of the Dark Ages mentality of the clergy. Worse, officials who should uphold the law have capitulated to this inquisitional bent of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy. How sad to see such a flouting of democracy in “the cradle of democracy.”
Yet, The New York Times reported that in another matter, “the Government [of Greece] . . . rejected a demand by the Greek Orthodox Church that Martin Scorsese’s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ be banned in Greece. To do so, the Government said, would be contrary to the principles of Socialism and freedom of the arts.” This film is considered by many to be highly insulting to Jesus, yet the government stood up to the church’s demand that the film be banned. But they did not stand up to the church’s demand that Jehovah’s Witnesses be denied their legal right to use a public stadium for a Christian meeting.
It is ironic that this arena is called the Stadium of Peace and Friendship! Jehovah’s Witnesses have an international reputation as promoters of peace and friendship among people of all races and nationalities. But at the last moment, just because the clergy objected, they were prevented from exercising their constitutional right to assemble.
Witnesses Find a Solution
However, the refusal did not prevent Jehovah’s Witnesses from holding their convention. In spite of many complications, arrangements were immediately made to move it to a terraced hillside at Malakasa, outside of Athens, to the rear of the Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The meetings were held as scheduled and with fine results. However, many of the large audience had to sit in the hot summer sun instead of in an air-conditioned indoor stadium.
The event was widely reported on throughout Greece. Many expressed dismay at the clergy’s actions and took them to task for their wicked, treacherous acts. Certainly their threats of mob violence were unchristian, to say the least.
The four-day convention at Malakasa was tied in by telephone to audiences in Thessalonica, Cyprus, and Crete, and over 30,000 enthusiastic Greeks, as well as other delegates from different lands, were overjoyed and encouraged by what they heard and saw.
The actions of the clergy and of certain officials raised many questions. For example, an editorial in the Athens News noted that “Greece is making every effort to win its bid to stage the 1996 Olympic Games in Athens.” It then went on to say: “The implication that the church can influence [the sports secretariat of the culture ministry] to cancel events of this type raises some doubts that the government will have to remove, especially in view of its campaign to win the 1996 Olympiad.”
The editorial also noted: “‘There will be athletes and visitors of all faiths for the Games—Moslems, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics and others—and there will be the atheists of the East Bloc. If the sports facilities are not available to the members of a specific sect, will others be welcome?’ an observer asked yesterday. He added, ‘Unless some clarification is forthcoming, what this case looks like is one of extreme intolerance and bigotry—an image which Greece can ill afford.’” All decent, freedom-loving people agree.
[Blurb on page 10]
Court declares that each individual is ‘free to believe in the religion of his choice and has the right to change his religion’
[Blurb on page 11]
How sad to see such a flouting of democracy in “the cradle of democracy”