Jehovah’s Witnesses Vindicated in Greece
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT
THE Orthodox priest in the Cretan village of Gazi stated during one of his sermons: “Jehovah’s Witnesses have a hall right here in our village. I need your support to get rid of them.” One evening a few days later, the Kingdom Hall windows were smashed and shots were fired at it by unknown individuals. Thus the issue of religious freedom was again raised in Greece.
These events motivated four of the local Witnesses, Kyriakos Baxevanis, Vassilis Hatzakis, Kostas Makridakis, and Titos Manoussakis, to lodge a petition with the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs for a permit to hold religious meetings. They hoped that getting a permit would eventually secure police protection. However, it was not going to be that easy.
The priest sent a letter to the headquarters of the security police in Heraklion, drawing the authorities’ attention to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in his parish and requesting that sanctions be imposed and that their meetings be banned. This resulted in a police investigation and interrogations. Eventually, the prosecutor instituted criminal proceedings against the Witnesses, and the case was brought before the court.
On October 6, 1987, the Criminal Court of Heraklion acquitted the four defendants, stating that “they had not committed the act of which they were charged, because members of a religion are free to conduct meetings . . . , no permit being necessary.” Nevertheless, the prosecutor appealed the decision two days later, and the case was brought before a higher court. On February 15, 1990, this court sentenced the Witnesses to two months’ imprisonment and a fine of about $100. Subsequently, the defendants appealed to the Greek Supreme Court.
On March 19, 1991, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the conviction. Over two years later, on September 20, 1993, when the Supreme Court decision was announced, the Kingdom Hall was sealed by the police. As revealed by a police document, the Orthodox Church of Crete was behind this action.
This situation came about because certain laws, passed in 1938 with the intention of restricting religious freedom, are still in force in Greece. They stipulate that if an individual wishes to operate a place of worship, a permit must be obtained from the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and also from the local bishop of the Orthodox Church. For several decades, these anachronistic laws have caused many difficulties for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Freedom of Religion, and Human Rights
On learning that their conviction had been upheld by the Supreme Court, the four Witnesses submitted an application to the European Commission of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, on August 7, 1991. The applicants claimed that their conviction violated Article 9 of the European Convention, which safeguards freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the right to manifest one’s religion alone or in community with others and in public or in private.
On May 25, 1995, the 25 members of the Commission came to the unanimous decision that in this case Greece had violated Article 9 of the European Convention. Their pronouncement was that the conviction in question was not compatible with the spirit of religious freedom and was not necessary in a democratic society. This decision as to the admissibility of the case also stated: “The applicants . . . are members of a movement whose religious rites and practices are widely known and authorized in many European countries.” Finally, the Commission referred the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Cannot Be Stopped
The hearing was set for May 20, 1996. There were over 200 in the courtroom, including students and professors from the local university, journalists, and a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Greece, Germany, Belgium, and France.
Mr. Phédon Vegleris, professor emeritus at the University of Athens and attorney for the Witnesses, maintained that the policy used and the judgments rendered by the national authorities violated not only the European Convention but also the Constitution of Greece. “So it is national law and its application which are taken up by the Court.”
The attorney for the Greek government was a judge from the Council of State, who, instead of discussing the facts, referred to the position taken by the Orthodox Church in Greece, to its close ties with the State and the people, and to the alleged need to keep other religions in check. Furthermore, he stated that from 1960 onward, Jehovah’s Witnesses had succeeded in greatly increasing their numbers. In other words, the Orthodox monopoly had been successfully challenged!
Religious Freedom Upheld
Judgment would be delivered on September 26. Suspense ran high, especially for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The President of the Chamber, Mr. Rudolf Bernhardt, read out the decision: The Court, composed of nine judges, held unanimously that Greece had violated Article 9 of the European Convention. It also awarded the applicants the sum of about $17,000 to cover expenses. Most important, the decision included many noteworthy arguments in favor of religious freedom.
The Court noted that Greek law allows for “far-reaching interference by the political, administrative and ecclesiastical authorities with the exercise of religious freedom.” It added that the procedure required to obtain a permit was used by the State “to impose rigid, or indeed prohibitive, conditions on practice of religious beliefs by certain non-orthodox movements, in particular Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The fierce tactics used by the Orthodox Church for so many decades were exposed by this international court.
The Court stressed that “the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Convention excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.” It also stated that “Jehovah’s Witnesses come within the definition of ‘known religion’ as provided for under Greek law . . . This was moreover conceded by the Government.”
Not a Mere Joke
During the next few days, most of the major Greek newspapers publicized this case. On September 29, 1996, the Sunday edition of Kathimerini made the comment: “As hard as the Greek State tries to pass it off as ‘a mere joke,’ the ‘slap in the face’ that it received from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is an actual fact, a fact that has been duly chronicled on an international scale. The Court reminded Greece of Article 9 of the Convention on Human Rights, and it unanimously condemned the Greek legislation.”
The Athens daily Ethnos wrote on September 28, 1996, that the European Court “condemned Greece, ordering it to pay its citizens who happen to suffer the misfortune of being Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
One of the applicants’ attorneys, Mr. Panos Bitsaxis, was interviewed on a radio program and said: “We are living in the year 1996, on the verge of the 21st century, and it goes without saying that there should be no discrimination, harassment, or intervention on the part of the administration in connection with the exercise of the fundamental right to religious freedom. . . . This is a good opportunity for the government to reexamine its policy and put a stop to this senseless discrimination, which serves no purpose whatsoever in this day and age.”
The decision in the case Manoussakis and Others v. Greece gives rise to the hope that the Greek State will bring its legislation in line with the European Court’s judgment, so that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Greece may enjoy religious freedom without administrative, police, or church intervention. Furthermore, this is the second judgment rendered against the Greek judiciary by the European Court on matters relating to religious freedom.a
It is widely known that Jehovah’s Witnesses obey the governmental “superior authorities” in all matters that do not conflict with God’s Word. (Romans 13:1, 7) In no way do they constitute a threat to public order. On the contrary, their publications and public ministry encourage everyone to be a law-abiding citizen and to live a peaceful life. They are an upright and well-established religion, and their members have contributed much to the well-being of their neighborhoods. Their resoluteness in upholding the high moral standards of the Bible and their love of neighbor, as expressed especially in their Bible educational work, have had a wholesome effect in the more than 200 lands where they exist.
It is hoped that the decisions handed down by the European Court will serve to bring greater religious freedom to Jehovah’s Witnesses and all other religious minorities in Greece.
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The original Kingdom Hall sealed by the police on September 20, 1993
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The European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg
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Witnesses involved: T. Manoussakis, V. Hatzakis, K. Makridakis, K. Baxevanis