European High Court Upholds Right to Preach in Greece
WHY would a man praised by his neighbors be arrested more than 60 times since 1938? Why would this honest shopkeeper from the Greek island of Crete be brought before Greek courts 18 times and serve more than six years in prison? Yes, why would this industrious family man, Minos Kokkinakis, be taken away from his wife and five children and be exiled to various penal islands?
Laws passed in 1938 and 1939 forbidding proselytism are largely responsible. These laws were established by the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, who was acting under the influence of the Greek Orthodox Church.
As a result of this legislation, from 1938 to 1992, there were 19,147 arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the courts imposed sentences that totaled 753 years, 593 of which were actually served. All of this was done because the Witnesses in Greece, as elsewhere, follow the instructions of Jesus Christ to “make disciples of people of all the nations, . . . teaching them to observe all the things” he commanded.—Matthew 28:19, 20.
But on May 25, 1993, a grand victory in behalf of freedom of worship was won! On that date the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, upheld a Greek citizen’s right to teach his beliefs to others. In so ruling, this European high court created broad protections for religious freedom that may have a profound effect on the lives of people everywhere.
Let us take a closer look at the developments, including the indignities suffered by just one Greek citizen, that led up to this momentous court decision.
In 1938 this citizen, Minos Kokkinakis, became the first one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be convicted under the Greek law that makes proselytism a criminal offense. Without the benefit of a trial, he was sent to serve 13 months in exile on the Aegean island of Amorgos. In 1939 he was sentenced twice and imprisoned for two and a half months each time.
In 1940, Kokkinakis was exiled for six months to the island of Melos. The following year, during World War II, he was incarcerated in the military prison in Athens for more than 18 months. Regarding that period, he recalls:
“The lack of food in the prison went from bad to worse. We became so weak that we could not walk. If it had not been for the Witnesses from the Athens and Piraeus areas who provided us food from their depleted means, we would have died.” Later, in 1947, he was again sentenced and served another four and a half months in prison.
In 1949, Minos Kokkinakis was exiled to the island of Makrónisos, a name that brings images of horror to the minds of Greeks because of the prison there. Among the some 14,000 inmates then incarcerated at Makrónisos, about 40 were Witnesses. The Greek encyclopedia Papyros Larousse Britannica observes: “The methods of cruel torture, . . . the living conditions, which are unacceptable for a civilized nation, and the guards’ degrading behavior toward inmates . . . are a disgrace to the history of Greece.”
Kokkinakis, who spent a year in the prison on Makrónisos, described conditions: “The soldiers, like members of the Inquisition, would interrogate each inmate from morning till evening. Words fail to describe the tortures they inflicted. Many prisoners lost their sanity; others were killed; a great number were left physically disabled. During those terrible nights while we heard the cries and groanings of those being tortured, we would pray as a group.”
After surviving hardships on Makrónisos, Kokkinakis was arrested six more times during the 1950’s and served ten months in prison. In the 1960’s he was arrested an additional four times and was sentenced to eight months in prison. But remember, Minos Kokkinakis was only one among hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses who over the years were arrested and imprisoned because they spoke to others about their faith!
How was it that the terrible injustices perpetrated against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Greece finally came before the European Court of Human Rights?
The Test Case
The case had its origin on March 2, 1986. On that date Minos Kokkinakis, then a retired 77-year-old businessman, and his wife called at the home of Mrs. Georgia Kyriakaki in Sitia, Crete. Mrs. Kyriakaki’s husband, who was the cantor at a local Orthodox church, informed the police. The police came and arrested Mr. and Mrs. Kokkinakis, who were then taken to the local police station. There they were forced to spend the night.
What was the charge against them? The same one made against Jehovah’s Witnesses thousands of times during the previous 50 years, namely, that they were proselytizing. The Greek Constitution (1975), Article 13, states: “Proselytism is prohibited.” Consider further the Greek law, section 4, numbers 1363/1938 and 1672/1939, which makes proselytism a criminal offense. It says:
“By ‘proselytism’ is meant, in particular, any direct or indirect attempt to intrude on the religious beliefs of a person of a different religious persuasion . . . , with the aim of undermining those beliefs, either by any kind of inducement or promise of an inducement or moral support or material assistance, or by fraudulent means or by taking advantage of his inexperience, trust, need, low intellect or naïvety.”
The Criminal Court at Lasithi, Crete, heard the case on March 20, 1986, and found Mr. and Mrs. Kokkinakis guilty of proselytism. Both were sentenced to four months in prison. In convicting the couple, the court declared that the defendants had intruded “on the religious beliefs of Orthodox Christians . . . by taking advantage of their inexperience, their low intellect and their naïvety.” The defendants were further charged with “encouraging [Mrs. Kyriakaki] by means of their judicious, skilful explanations . . . to change her Orthodox Christian beliefs.”
The decision was appealed to the Crete Court of Appeal. On March 17, 1987, this Crete court acquitted Mrs. Kokkinakis but upheld her husband’s conviction, although it reduced his prison sentence to three months. The judgment claimed that Mr. Kokkinakis had taken “advantage of [Mrs. Kyriakaki’s] inexperience, her low intellect and her naïvety.” It said that he “began to read out passages from Holy Scripture, which he skilfully analysed in a manner that the Christian woman, for want of adequate grounding in doctrine, could not challenge.”
In a dissenting opinion, one of the appeal judges wrote that Mr. Kokkinakis “should also have been acquitted, as none of the evidence shows that Georgia Kyriakaki . . . was particularly inexperienced in Orthodox Christian doctrine, being married to a cantor, or of particularly low intellect or particularly naïve, such that the defendant was able to take advantage and . . . [thus] induce her to become a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect.”
Mr. Kokkinakis appealed the case to the Greek Court of Cassation, the Supreme Court of Greece. But that court dismissed the appeal on April 22, 1988. So on August 22, 1988, Mr. Kokkinakis applied to the European Commission of Human Rights. His petition was eventually accepted on February 21, 1992, and was admitted to the European Court of Human Rights.
Issues of the Case
Since Greece is a member-state of the Council of Europe, it is obliged to conform to the Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 of the Convention reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
Thus, the Greek government became the defendant in a European court. It was accused of openly violating the basic human right of a Greek citizen to practice religion in keeping with the command of Jesus Christ, namely, ‘to teach and make disciples.’ (Matthew 28:19, 20) Further, the apostle Peter said: “[Jesus] ordered us to preach to the people and to give a thorough witness.”—Acts 10:42.
A special 1992 issue of the magazine Human Rights Without Frontiers carried the cover title “Greece—Deliberate Violations of Human Rights.” The magazine explained on page 2: “Greece is the only country in the EC [European Community] and in Europe having penal legislation which provides for fines and prison sentences to be imposed upon anyone motivating another person to change his religion.”
So by now excitement inside and outside legal circles was running high. What would be decided regarding the Greek law that forbids the teaching of one’s beliefs to others?
Hearing in Strasbourg
Finally came the day of the hearing—November 25, 1992. There were heavy clouds over Strasbourg, and the cold was chilling, but inside the Court the lawyers warmed to their arguments. For two hours evidence was presented. Professor Phedon Vegleris, an attorney for Kokkinakis, reached the heart of the issue, asking: ‘Should this restrictive law designed to protect members of the Greek Orthodox Church from being converted to other religious beliefs continue to exist and be applied?’
Obviously puzzled, Professor Vegleris asked: “I wonder why this [proselytism] law equates orthodoxy with stupidity and ignorance. I was always wondering why should orthodoxy need protection from stupidity, from spiritual incompetence . . . This is something that disturbs and shocks me.” Significantly, the government’s representative was unable to provide one instance in which this law was applied to anyone other than Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The second attorney for Kokkinakis, Mr. Panagiotis Bitsaxis, showed how unreasonable the proselytism law is. He said: “The acceptance of mutual influence is a precondition for a dialogue between adult persons. Otherwise, we would belong to a strange society of silent beasts, who would think but not express themselves, who would talk but not communicate, who would exist but not coexist.”
Mr. Bitsaxis also argued that “Mr. Kokkinakis was condemned not ‘for something he did’ but [for] ‘what he is.’” Therefore, Mr. Bitsaxis showed, the principles of religious freedom had been not only violated but totally shattered.
The representatives of the Greek government tried to present a picture different from the real one, claiming that Greece is “a paradise for human rights.”
The long anticipated date for handing down the decision came—May 25, 1993. In a six to three vote, the Court ruled that the Greek government had violated the religious freedom of 84-year-old Minos Kokkinakis. In addition to vindicating his life course of public ministry, it awarded him $14,400 in damages. The Court thus rejected the Greek government’s argument that Kokkinakis and Jehovah’s Witnesses use pressure tactics when discussing their beliefs with others.
Although the Greek Constitution and an archaic Greek law may prohibit proselytism, the high court in Europe ruled that using this law to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses is wrong. It is not in harmony with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court decision explained: “Religion was part of the ‘constantly renewable flow of human thought’ and it was impossible to conceive of its being excluded from public debate.”
A concurring opinion of one of the nine judges said: “Proselytism, defined as ‘zeal in spreading the faith,’ cannot be punishable as such; it is a way—perfectly legitimate in itself—of ‘manifesting one’s religion.’
“In the instant case the applicant [Mr. Kokkinakis] was convicted only for having shown such zeal, without any impropriety on his part.”
Consequences of the Decision
The clear direction of the European Court of Human Rights is that the officials of the Greek government cease misusing the law that forbids proselytism. Hopefully, Greece will abide by the direction of the court and discontinue its persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It is not the purpose of Jehovah’s Witnesses to introduce social changes or to reform the legal system. Their principal concern is to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom in obedience to the command of Jesus Christ. To do this, however, they are pleased to ‘defend and legally establish the good news,’ as did the apostle Paul in the first century.—Philippians 1:7.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are law-abiding citizens in all countries in which they reside. Above all, however, they are compelled to obey divine law as it is recorded in the Holy Bible. Therefore, if the law of any land forbids them to speak their Bible-based beliefs to others, they are forced to take the apostolic position: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
[Box on page 28]
MORE CLERGY-INSPIRED PERSECUTION
Attempts by the clergy in Greece to ‘frame trouble by law’ has been going on for decades. (Psalm 94:20) Another instance on the island of Crete was recently resolved. Back in 1987 a local bishop and 13 priests had accused nine Witnesses of proselytism. Finally, on January 24, 1992, the case came to trial.
The courtroom was packed. About 35 priests were on hand to support the prosecution’s charges. However, most of the seats were already occupied by Witnesses who had come to encourage their Christian brothers. Even before regular proceedings got under way, the attorney for the accused pointed out serious legal mistakes made by the prosecutor.
The upshot was that those involved in the proceedings withdrew for a private conference. After two and a half hours of consultation, the President of the Court announced that the lawyer for the defendants was right. Therefore the accusations against the nine Witnesses were canceled! He ruled that the investigations would need to be started over again to establish whether the accused were guilty of proselytism.
As soon as the announcement was made, pandemonium broke out in the courtroom. The priests started shouting threats and insults. One priest attacked the lawyer for Jehovah’s Witnesses with a cross and tried to force him to worship it. The police had to step in, and the Witnesses were finally able to leave in a quiet manner.
After the trial was canceled, the public prosecutor prepared a new accusation against the nine Witnesses. The trial was set for April 30, 1993, just three weeks before the European Court of Human Rights rendered its decision in the Kokkinakis case. Once again there were many priests in attendance.
The lawyers for the nine defendants lodged the objection that the accusers of the Witnesses were not present in court. In his haste to prepare a new accusation, the public prosecutor had made the serious mistake of not sending summonses to the accusers. So the lawyers for the Witnesses asked the court to cancel the trial on the basis of this serious error.
At that, the judges left the courtroom and consulted together for almost an hour. Upon their return, the President of the Court, with his head bowed, declared all nine Witnesses innocent of the charges.
The Witnesses in Greece are grateful for the outcome of this case, as well as for the European Court of Human Rights decision rendered in the Kokkinakis case on May 25 of this year. Their prayers are that as a result of these legal victories, they will be able to carry on their Christian lives ‘calmly, quietly, and with full godly devotion and seriousness.’—1 Timothy 2:1, 2.
[Picture on page 31]
Minos Kokkinakis with his wife