Religious Liberty Under Attack in Greece
DO YOU value liberty? Most people do. They want the freedom to have different opinions on such things as politics, economics, and religion, within the bounds of law and order, of course. On the other hand, being persecuted for one’s opinions brings to mind the Inquisition of the Middle Ages.
What does this have to do with Greece, a beautiful land situated in the eastern Mediterranean? In that nation, a peculiar situation exists that is incompatible with democratic liberty.
Undermining Liberty and Reputation
Greece has long been called “the birthplace of democracy.” Indeed, in 1975 Greece adopted a democratic Constitution to guarantee the liberties that people value. And the government of Greece works to uphold those guarantees.
However, there are those in Greece who are trying to undermine its liberties and who are seriously damaging Greece’s reputation worldwide. These disorderly ones have incited and led ugly mobs to attack peaceful Greek citizens, have pressured officials to arrest and imprison them, and have worked to deny these law-abiding Greeks their liberties. This has gone on for many years now, in spite of the constitutional guarantees.
Why has all of this come about? Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? Let the press in Greece tell you something about the situation.
Attacks and Arrests
The Constitution of Greece declares that “Greeks shall have the right to assemble peaceably and unarmed.” It also declares that “freedom of religious conscience is inviolable,” and it adds: “All known religions shall be free and their rites of worship shall be performed unhindered and under the protection of law.”
Thus, on Sunday, June 15, of this year, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses met peacefully at a theater in Larisa, Greece. They were there to study the Bible and to discuss ways of improving the application of its Christian principles in their daily lives.
Yet, note what took place. The local newspaper I Larisa reported: “Hundreds of people, especially members of [Greek Orthodox Church] organizations of our town, with a few priests leading, started to gather, and they began to express their disapproval of those in the cinema—over 700 of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the crowd looking as if it was about to go into the cinema to stop the assembly.”
That went on for about three hours. The mob was finally dispersed by large numbers of police. The mood of the clergy inciting the mob was noted by the Larisa newspaper Eleftheria when it quoted these words of a Greek Orthodox priest: “The next time the mayor gives the cinema to [the Witnesses], we will take our spades and smash everything!” And a bishop publicly expressed his approval of the mob’s actions.
In the Larisa newspaper I Alithia, writer Sarantos Vounatsos expressed indignation at the priestly action. He noted that the mentality of the mob was like that of the crowd who clamored for the death of Jesus, shouting: “Let him be impaled!” Of the Larisa mob, he wrote: “Their ‘leader’ was a raving . . . priest! He threatened, blasphemed, preached ostentatiously, and at one point . . . gave all those inside five minutes’ notice to leave the cinema . . . ‘otherwise we will come in and smash their heads.’”
The newspaper article addressed itself to the priest and said: “Do you wish to impose yourself with acts of the pharisees? Well, be careful, because if you continue you will no longer have [God’s] mercy or grace, nor ours either.”
Such persecution is not just an isolated incident. There have been hundreds of arrests of non-Orthodox believers in the past few years, “including 890 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1983 alone,” said The Wall Street Journal. And this year, reported the Athens newspaper Eleftherotipia, a priest attacked a 76-year-old Witness, Vasili Kapeleri, resulting eventually in Kapeleri’s death.
Dark Ages Mentality
The root of the problem lies with the clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. Since it is the dominant religion in Greece, the clergy feel that Jehovah’s Witnesses have no right to exist. So they try to deny the Witnesses their liberties by mob action, assault, imprisonment, and pressure on courts. Earlier this year, clergy opposition resulted in a Crete court’s denying the Witnesses legal status.
In the court brief, the Orthodox Church claimed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a “well-known and recognized religion,” and they “cannot be rightfully called Christians.” So the Church asserts that the Witnesses should have no right to their own buildings for worship or any right to talk about religion with others. But such a mentality is medieval. It reflects the spirit of the Inquisition, not that of ‘the cradle of democracy.’
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not try to deny the Orthodox Church the right to have its churches and to preach what it wants. But in this modern age, should that Church impose its religious views on everyone else? And especially in a democratic society where there is great variety of opinion? In no other Western democracy is this done.
All over the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally recognized as a Christian religion. Governments of differing political viewpoints have granted them the legal right to build places of worship and to hold to their beliefs. That they are a well-known international Christian religion can be seen from the fact that they have more than three million active ministers, with five million others attending their meetings. And they are organized into 50,000 congregations in over 200 lands.
So for the clergy to claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a ‘known Christian religion’ is absurd. The clergy’s attitude is an embarrassment to the reputation of the democratic government of Greece. It is also an insult to the millions of Witnesses worldwide who are devout Christians and who know that many of their fellow believers have been martyred for their faith.
Equally absurd is the Church’s claim in the Crete court that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a “clandestine” organization. The Church said: “The very beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses are neither fully known nor are they openly revealed . . . They do not have ‘houses of prayer’ nor other public places for worship where anyone may freely enter. Neither have their rituals of worship ever been fully revealed.”
Anyone even remotely familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses knows that such charges are utterly false. Their teachings are in print for anyone to examine, and their meetings are open to all orderly persons, free of charge. In fact, the Witnesses teach the Bible to millions of people in their homes all over the world to acquaint them with those beliefs! And the Watch Tower branch offices worldwide welcome thousands of visitors each week.
But here is a paradox. Why are the Witnesses in Greece unable to meet in “houses of prayer”? Because they have been denied the right to build them! Since they are denied these halls, they must meet in private homes. And then the Church says that they are having secret meetings! Yet, throughout the world Jehovah’s Witnesses have constructed thousands of large buildings for worship. But they cannot do that in Greece.
Thus, you may better understand why the claims of the Church are, as John Manoledakis, Professor of Penal Law at the University of Thessalonica in Greece, put it, “not at all flattering to both the intended purpose of the [Greek Orthodox] Church or the intelligence of its flock.”
Who Are the Christians?
In the first century, Jesus and his followers were the victims of persecution, mob action, imprisonment, and death. Who were their chief persecutors? The clergy of that time.
For example, note what happened when Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead: “The chief priests and the Pharisees . . . took counsel to kill [Jesus].” Not satisfied with that, “the chief priests now took counsel to kill Lazarus also, because on account of him many of the Jews were going there and putting faith in Jesus.” And finally, “the chief priests and the older [religious] men persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas, but to have Jesus destroyed.”—John 11:47, 53; 12:10, 11; Matthew 27:20.
It is no wonder that Jesus said to them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In that way you also, outwardly indeed, appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27, 28) Also, the clergy often incited others against the disciples of Jesus.
Nowhere did Jesus instruct Christians to persecute, imprison, assault, or take mob action against those who disagreed with them. Thus, in the first century the real Christians were the persecuted, not the persecutors. The persecutors were the clergy and those incited by them. It is the same in Greece today.
Are They “Antichrists”?
The Greek Orthodox Church also claimed: “Jehovah’s Witnesses not only cannot be rightfully called Christians, that is to say, disciples of Christ, but on the contrary, they are . . . the antichrists.”
What does the Bible say of “antichrist”? At 1 John 2:22 it states: “Who is the liar if it is not the one that denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one that denies the Father and the Son.”
Thus, the plain fact of God’s inspired Word is that an antichrist does not accept Jesus. But Jehovah’s Witnesses do! They most fervently believe in Jesus and follow his teachings! In fact, no one can become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses without accepting Jesus as the divine Son of God, who came down from heaven, was impaled and resurrected, and who returned to heaven.
So anyone who says that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “antichrist” either is badly misinformed, is blinded by prejudice, or has evil motives.
‘Promoting Earthly Jewish Rule’?
Another assertion by the Orthodox Church is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are promoting Jewish rule on earth. The Church declares: “Their actual camouflaged purpose, which is a completely kept secret to the great majority of its adherents, is the establishment of a ‘Worldwide Theocratic Jewish Kingdom’ with its main center of operations in Jerusalem.”
Ask the millions of Witnesses if they believe that! Not one of them does. While at one time some thought that certain prophecies may have applied to literal Palestine in this century, that view was abandoned more than 50 years ago!
Proverbs 4:18 states that ‘the path of the righteous is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter.’ This increasing enlightenment, strengthened by the fulfillment of Bible prophecy, clearly shows that the modern Republic of Israel will never accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Thus, to say that the Christian Witnesses are promoting an earthly Jewish kingdom centered in Jerusalem is another absurdity. Instead, they promote the heavenly rulership of God’s Kingdom, as Jesus taught.—Matthew 4:17; 6:10.
Among the things used by the clergy to incite others against Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fact that the Witnesses do not accept certain Church doctrines. Foremost of these is the Trinity. But why should that have any bearing on the exercise of democracy in Greece? Why must everyone believe the Trinity in order to enjoy civil liberties there?
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not deny Jesus’ godship, or divinity. They accept what John 1:1 says of him, that he is “a god.” However, the Church says that Jesus is not just “a god” but that he is the almighty God, part of three coeternal persons, coequal in power.
The Bible, God’s inspired Word, does not teach that. Instead, it plainly states: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son.” (John 3:16) At no time did Jesus claim to be almighty God. He said he was “the only-begotten Son of God.” Any impartial reading of the Scriptures will verify that.—John 3:18; 10:34-36.
Time and again Jesus said: “The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing.” “I have come down from heaven to do, not my will, but the will of him that sent me.” “What I teach is not mine, but belongs to him that sent me.” “The Father is greater than I am.” And God’s Word adds: “The Son himself will also subject himself to [God].”—John 5:19; 6:38; 7:16; 14:28; 1 Corinthians 15:28.
Thus the Trinity is unscriptural. From where, then, did it originate? It was adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. when apostates incorporated a pagan idea that had originated in ancient Egypt and Babylon. As historian Will Durant observed in The Story of Civilization: Part III: “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. . . . From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity.” And The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament . . . The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies.”
However, if the Orthodox Church wants to believe the Trinity, that is its right. But it has no right in a democratic land to persecute, incite mobs and arrests, and deny Jehovah’s Witnesses their liberties because they do not believe the Trinity.
Uphold Democracy in Greece
The Constitution of Greece is clear: “Freedom of religious conscience is inviolable. . . . All known religions shall be free and their rites of worship shall be performed unhindered and under the protection of law.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, well known and granted legal recognition internationally, uphold those democratic principles. They want Greece to uphold them, too, and not let any church impose its Inquisition mentality on others by persecuting those who do not agree with its views.
The clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church would do well to heed the advice of a law teacher of the first century, Gamaliel. To the clergy who were persecuting Christ’s followers, he said: “I say to you, Do not meddle with these men, but let them alone; (because, if this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them;) otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.”—Acts 5:34-39.
On that same occasion, the Christian followers of Jesus Christ said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” That is also how the Christian Witnesses of Jehovah today view matters. It is what they will continue to do in Greece regardless of what the clergy demand.—Acts 5:29.
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Peter and the other apostles told the clergy of their day: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men”