The Constitution establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ (Greek Orthodoxy) as the "prevailing" religion, but also provides for the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice; however, while the Government generally respects this right, non-Orthodox groups sometimes face administrative obstacles or encounter legal restrictions on religious practice. The Constitution prohibits proselytizing and stipulates that no rite of worship may disturb public order or offend moral principles.
Overall, leaders of minority religions noted a general improvement in government tolerance during the period covered by this report, citing fewer detentions for proselytizing; the conscientious objector law; and an effective, well-run Ombudsman's office, which successfully handled an increasing number of cases.
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Greeks tend to link religious affiliation very closely to ethnicity. In the minds of many Greeks, an ethnic Greek is also Orthodox Christian. Non-Orthodox citizens have complained of being treated with suspicion or told that they were not truly Greek when they revealed their religious affiliation. The Government's decision in the summer of 2000 to remove a notation of religious affiliation on national identity cards sparked a national debate, which is still continuing, on the role of the Church in Greek society.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. U.S. Embassy officers meet regularly with working-level officials responsible for religious affairs in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education and Religious Affairs. Officers from the U.S. Embassy and the Consulate General in Thessaloniki also meet regularly with representatives of various religious groups, including the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total land area of 81,934.74 square miles and its population is approximately 10.9 million. Approximately 94 to 97 percent of the population identify themselves at least nominally with the Greek Orthodox faith. There are approximately 500,000 to 800,000 Old Calendarists throughout the country. With the exception of the Muslim community (some of whose rights and privileges as well as related government obligations are covered by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne), the Government does not keep statistics on the size of religious groups; and the 2001 census did not ask for religious affiliation. Ethnic Greeks account for a sizeable percentage of most non-Orthodox religions. The balance of the population is composed of Muslims (officially estimated at 98,000, though some Muslims claim up to 130,000 to 140,000 countrywide); accurate figures for other religious groups are not available. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses are estimated at 50,000; Catholics at 50,000; Protestants, including evangelicals, at 30,000; Jews at 5,000; and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) at 300. Scientologists claim 12,000 members, a figure observers believe to be high. The Jewish community numbers approximately 5,000 adherents; the majority are Greek citizens and live in the Athens and Thessaloniki regions. Approximately 250 members of the Baha'i Faith are scattered throughout the country, the majority of whom are Greek citizens of non-Greek ethnicity. There are also small populations of Anglicans, Baptists, and nondenominational Christians. There is no official or unofficial estimate of atheists.
The majority of noncitizen residents are not Greek Orthodox. The largest of these groups is the Albanians (approximately 700,000 including legal and illegal residents); of them, a few are Orthodox and Roman Catholics, but the majority are nonreligious.
Greek Catholics reside particularly in Athens and on the islands of Syros, Tinos, Naxos, and Corfu, as well as in the cities of Thessaloniki and Patras. Immigrants from the Philippines and Poland also practice Catholicism. The Bishop of Athens heads the Roman Catholic Holy Synod.
Some religious groups, such as the evangelicals and Jehovah's Witnesses, consist almost entirely of ethnic Greeks. Other groups, such as the Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints and Anglicans, consist of an approximately equal number of ethnic Greeks and non-Greeks.
The Muslim population, concentrated in western Thrace with small communities in Rhodes, Kos, and Athens, is composed mainly of ethnic Turks but also includes Pomaks and Roma.
Scientologists, most of whom are located in the Athens area, practice their faith through a registered nonprofit philosophical organization.
Foreign Missionary groups are active in the country, including Protestants and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the latter states that it has approximately 80 missionaries in the country each year, for approximately 2-year terms.
Section II: Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ (Greek Orthodoxy) as the prevailing religion, but also provides for the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice; however, while the Government generally respects this right, non-Orthodox groups sometimes face administrative obstacles, or encounter legal restrictions on religious practice. The Constitution prohibits proselytizing and stipulates that no rite of worship may disturb public order or offend moral principles. The Orthodox Church wields significant political and economic influence. The Government, under the direction of the Ministry of Education and Religion, provides some financial support by, for example, paying for the salaries and religious training of clergy, and financing the construction and maintenance of Orthodox Church buildings.
The Orthodox Church and the Jewish and Muslim religions are the only groups considered by law to be a "legal person of public law." Other religions are considered "legal persons of private law." In practice the primary distinction is that the establishment of "houses of prayer" of religions other than the Orthodox Church, Judaism, or Islam is regulated by the general provisions of the Civil Code regarding corporations. For example, these religions cannot, as religious entities, own property; the property must belong to a specifically created legal entity rather than to the church itself. In practice this places an additional legal and administrative burden on non-Orthodox religious community organizations, although in most cases this process has been handled routinely. Members of minority religious groups that are classified as private entities also cannot be represented in court as religious entities and cannot will or inherit property as a religious entity. In July 1999, the Parliament passed a law extending legal recognition to Catholic churches and related entities established prior to 1946. By virtue of the Orthodox Church's status as the "prevailing" religion, the Government recognizes the Orthodox Church's cannon law (the official statutes of the Church). However, the Catholic Church unsuccessfully has sought government recognition of its canon law since 1999.
Two laws from the 1930's require recognized or "known" religious groups to obtain "house of prayer" permits from the Ministry of Education and Religion in order to open houses of worship. By law the Ministry may base its decision to issue permits on the opinion of the local Orthodox bishop. No formal mechanism exists to gain recognition as a known religion, but Ministry officials state that they no longer obtain the opinion of the local Orthodox bishop when considering house of prayer permit applications. According to the Ministry's officials, applications for additional houses of prayer are numerous and are approved routinely; however, in October 2000 the Ministry denied the Scientologists of Greece their application for recognition and a house of prayer permit on the grounds that Scientology "is not a religion." The only recent application for recognition as a known religion at the Ministry was submitted in February 2000 by the Scientologists of Greece. Although the deadline mandated by law for processing the applications is 3 months, it took the Ministry until October 2000 to decide that it would not recognize the Scientologist community as an "official" religion. The Church of Scientology appealed the decision with the Council of State in December 2000 and the case will be heard in December 2001.
Leaders of some non-Orthodox religious groups claimed that all taxes on religious organizations were discriminatory, even those that the Orthodox Church has to pay, since the Government subsidizes the Orthodox Church, while other groups are self-supporting. The Government also pays the salaries of the two official Muslim religious leaders ("muftis") in western Thrace and provides them with official vehicles.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which is still in force, gives Muslims in western Thrace the right to maintain social and charitable organizations ("wakfs") and provides for muftis (Islamic judges and religious leaders with limited civic responsibilities) to render religious judicial services.
The Treaty of Lausanne provides that the Muslim minority has the right to Turkish-language education, with a reciprocal entitlement for the Greek minority in Istanbul (now reduced to approximately 3,000 persons). Western Thrace has both Koranic and secular Turkish-language schools. In the past, government disputes with Turkey over teachers and textbooks had caused these secular schools serious problems in obtaining faculty and teaching materials in sufficient number and quality; however, this is no longer a problem. In January 2000, 19 new Turkish-language textbooks approved jointly by the Governments of Greece and Turkey were distributed in the schools, the first such distribution since 1974. There were no complaints during the period covered by this report that the Government tried to prevent Turkish teachers (who serve under a 1952 reciprocal educational protocol) from performing their duties. Approximately 8,000 Muslim children attended Turkish-language public schools and an additional 150 attended two bilingual middle schools with a religious curriculum. Approximately 600 Muslim students attended Turkish-language secondary schools, and approximately 1,600 Muslim students attended Greek-language secondary schools. Some Muslims, especially in western Thrace, reportedly attended high school in Turkey; places in Turkish language secondary schools are no longer assigned by lottery, as the number of those wanting to attend has been less than the places available. In 1999 the Government instituted a European Union-funded program for teaching Greek as a second language to Muslim children, primarily in the Greek-language schools, to improve their academic performance and chances of obtaining post-secondary education in Greece.
Government incentives encourage Muslim and Christian educators to reside and teach in isolated villages. However, in August 1999, the Ministry of Education reformed the hiring system for teachers, which previously was based on seniority and prior service as a temporary teacher. As a result, Christian educators lost the incentive to reside and teach temporarily in isolated and border villages, which in the past secured priority in hiring. However, teachers and civil servants in border areas continue to receive a special allowance and pay lower taxes.
The law permits the Minister of Education to give special consideration to Muslims for admission to universities and technical institutes. The law requires universities and technical institutes to set aside places for Muslim students each year.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
On October 17, 2000, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs rejected the application of the Scientologists of Greece for recognition and a house of prayer permit on the grounds that Scientology "is not a religion." The Scientologists had reapplied for a house of prayer permit in late February 2000 in a step toward gaining recognition as a religion. According to the president of the Greek Scientologists, the group chose previously to register as a philosophical organization because legal counsel advised that the Government would not recognize Scientology as a religion. The Scientologists appealed the ministry decision with the Council of State and the case is scheduled to be heard in December 2001.
Minority religious groups have requested that the Government abolish laws regulating house of prayer permits, which are required in order to open houses of worship. Many provisions of these laws are not applied in practice, but local police still have the authority to bring minority churches to court that operate or build places of worship without a permit. On December 12, 2000, in Thessaloniki, 16 churches charged with operating without a house of prayer permit were acquitted.
Several religious denominations reported difficulties in dealing with the authorities on a variety of administrative matters. Privileges and legal prerogatives granted to the Greek Orthodox Church are not extended routinely to other recognized religions. The non-Greek Orthodox churches must make separate and lengthy applications to government authorities on such matters as gaining permission to move places of worship to larger facilities. In contrast Greek Orthodox officials have an institutionalized link between the church hierarchy and the Ministry of Education and Religion to handle administrative matters.
Non-Orthodox citizens have claimed that they face career limits within the military, police, and fire-fighting forces, and the civil service, due to their religions. In the military, generally only members of the Greek Orthodox faith become officers, leading some members of other faiths to declare themselves Orthodox. Few Muslim officers have advanced to the rank of reserve officer, and there were reports of pressure exerted on Greek Orthodox military personnel not to marry in the religious ceremony of their non-Orthodox partner, lest they be passed over for promotion.
The percentage of Muslims employed in the public sector and in state-owned industries and corporations is disproportionately lower than the percentage of Muslims in the population, which many observers claim is due to the Greek language barrier, not to religious discrimination. In Xanthi and Komotini, while Muslims hold seats on the prefectural and town councils, there are no Muslims among regular employees of the prefecture. Muslims in western Thrace claim that they are hired only for lower level, part-time work. According to the Government, lack of fluency in written and spoken Greek and the need for university degrees for high-level positions limit the number of Muslims eligible for government jobs.
Economically, the Muslim minority in Thrace lags behind the rest of the population. Since 1998, there have been no claims of discriminatory denial of Muslim applications for business licenses, tractor ownership, or property construction. In fact, Muslims and Christians in Thrace commended the Government for the basic public services (electricity, water, and telephone) provided to Muslim villages in recent years.
Unlike in the past, there were no reports during the period covered by this report of assertions by Muslim leaders that the Government routinely withheld permission from Muslims seeking to change their legal residence, which determines where they vote, from rural to urban communities within western Thrace or from elsewhere in Greece to Thrace.
Several religious denominations, including foreign Protestants and Mormons, reported difficulty in renewing the visas of their non-European Union citizen ministers because the Government does not have a distinct religious workers' visa category. As part of new obligations under the Schengen Treaty and the Treaty of Amsterdam, all non-European Union citizens face a more restrictive visa and residence regime than they did in the past. By the end of the period covered by this report, no progress had been made on issuing visas for foreign clergy to perform their religious work in Greece.
The approximately 10,000 member Muslim community in Athens (composed primarily of economic migrants from Thrace, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq) is without its own mosque or any state-appointed cleric to officiate at various religious functions, including funerals. Members of the Muslim community often transport their deceased back to Thrace for religious burials. In June 2000, the Parliament approved a bill allowing construction of the first Islamic cultural center and mosque in the Athens area; however, construction had not started by the end of the period covered by this report. According to official sources, a total of 287 mosques operate freely in western Thrace and on the islands of Rhodes and Kos.
Differences remain within the Muslim community and between segments of the community and the Government over the means of selecting muftis. Under a 1991 law, the Government appointed two muftis and one assistant mufti, all residents in Thrace. The appointments to 10-year terms were based on the recommendations of a committee of Muslim notables selected by the Government. The Government argued that it must appoint the muftis, because in addition to religious duties, they perform judicial functions in many civil and domestic matters under Muslim religious law, for which the State pays them. In January 2001, the mufti from Komotini was re-appointed for another 10-year term and in May 2001 the mufti from Xanthi also was re-appointed. Some Muslims accept the authority of the two government-appointed muftis; other Muslims, backed by Turkey, have "elected" two muftis to serve their communities (although there is no established procedure or practice for "election"). The Government has prosecuted "elected" muftis for usurping authority.
Controversy between the Muslim community and the Government also continued over the management and self-government of the "wakfs" (Muslim charitable organizations), particularly in regards to the appointment of officials as well as the degree and type of administrative control. A 1980 law placed the administration of the wakfs in the hands of the appointed muftis and their representatives. In response to objections from some Muslims that this arrangement weakened the financial autonomy of the wakfs and violated the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, a 1996 presidential decree put the wakfs under the administration of a committee for 3 years as an interim measure pending resolution of outstanding problems. The interim period was extended in 1999. At the end of the period covered by this report, the Government was preparing a draft bill that would permit Muslims to elect their own administrative committee for each municipality.
In the past, Muslim activists have complained that the Government regularly lodges tax liens against the wakfs, although they are tax-free foundations in theory. Under a national land and property registry law that came into full effect in January 1999, the wakfs, along with all property holders, must register all of their property with the Government. The law permits the Government to seize any property that the owners are not able to document; there are built-in reporting and appeals procedures. The wakfs were established in 1560; however, due to the destruction of files during the two world wars, the wakfs are unable to document ownership of much of their property. They have not registered the property, so they cannot pay assessed taxes. The Government had not sought to enforce either the assessments or the registration requirement by the end of the period covered by this report.
Evangelical parishes are located throughout the country. Members of missionary faiths report having difficulties with harassment and police detention due to anti-proselytizing laws. Church officials express concern that anti-proselytizing laws remain on the books, although such laws no longer hinder their ministering to the poor and to children.
During the period covered by this report, there were no further assertions that the municipality in Thessaloniki and in some villages refused to record the conversion of former Orthodox believers to other religions.
In the summer of 2000, the Government decided to remove the notation of religious affiliation on national identity cards. This decision sparked a national debate, which is still continuing, on the role of the Church in Greek society.
In January 1998, a law providing an alternative form of mandatory national service for conscientious objectors (for religious and ideological reasons) took effect. It provides that conscientious objectors may work in state hospitals or municipal services for 36 months, in lieu of mandatory military service. Conscientious objector groups generally characterized the legislation as a "positive first step" but criticized the 36-month alternative service term, which is double the regular 18-month period of military service. Since January 1998, all members of Jehovah's Witnesses (both clergy and laymen) who wished to submit applications for alternative nonmilitary service have been permitted to do so. There were 18 religiously based conscientious objector cases still pending resolution at the end of the reporting period. These cases pertain to individuals who were in the process of contesting a prison term for refusing to serve in the military and whose cases were not covered by the 1998 law.
A 1939 law prohibits the functioning of private schools in buildings owned by non-Orthodox religious foundations; however, this law is not enforced in practice.
Religious instruction in Orthodoxy in public, primary, and secondary schools is mandatory for all Greek Orthodox students. Non-Orthodox students are exempt from this requirement. However, members of Jehovah's Witnesses have reported some instances of discrimination related to attendance at religious education classes or other celebrations of religious or nationalistic character. Members of the Muslim community in Athens are lobbying for Islamic religious instruction for their children. The neighborhood schools offer no alternative supervision for the children during the period of religious instruction. The community has complained that this forces the parents to have their children attend Orthodox religious instruction by default.
In Thessaloniki in late 1999, the Government Tax Office refused to recognize the Jehovah Witnesses as a non-profit association (Evangelicals and Baha'is are considered non-profit associations) and imposed an inheritance tax for property willed to them. The groups appealed the decision in 2000; the Court of Appeals wrote off the imposed tax in April 2001.
Abuses of Freedom of Religion
Church leaders report that their permanent members (nonmissionaries) do not encounter discriminatory treatment. However, police occasionally detained Mormons and members of Jehovah's Witnesses (on average once every 2 weeks) after receiving complaints that the individuals were engaged in proselytizing. In most cases, these individuals were held for several hours at a police station and then released with no charges filed. Many reported that they were not allowed to call their lawyers and that they were abused verbally by police officers for their religious beliefs. There were no proselytizing-related court cases during the period covered by this report.
Some Muslims accept the authority of the two Government-appointed muftis; other Muslims, backed by Turkey, have "elected" two muftis to serve their communities.
The Government has convicted one of the elected muftis 14 times in 5 years for usurping the authority of the official mufti. All of the respective sentences remained suspended pending appeal at the end of the period covered by this report. The other elected mufti, who was convicted in 1991 of usurping the authority of the official mufti, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. In December 1999, the court ruled that the conviction violated his freedom of religion and self-expression, but it did not rule on the question of his legal status as mufti.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees apart from the problems of temporary police detention experienced by Mormons and members of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Improvements in Freedom of Religion
Overall, leaders of minority religions noted a general improvement in government tolerance during the period covered by this report, citing fewer detentions for proselytizing, the conscientious objector law, and an effective, well-run Ombudsman's office, which successfully handled an increasing number of cases related to religious freedom.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
Greeks tend to link religious affiliation very closely to ethnicity. Many attribute the preservation of Greek national identity to the actions of the Greek Orthodox Church during approximately 400 years of Ottoman rule and the subsequent nation building period. The Church wields significant social, political, and economic influence, and it owns a considerable, although undetermined, amount of property.
In the minds of many Greeks, an ethnic Greek is also an Orthodox Christian. Non-Orthodox citizens have complained of being treated with suspicion or told that they were not truly Greek when they revealed their religious affiliation.
Members of minority faiths have reported incidents of societal discrimination, such as local bishops warning parishioners not to visit clergy or members of minority faiths and neighbors, and requesting that the police arrest missionaries for proselytizing. However, with the exception of the Muslim minority of western Thrace, most members of minority faiths consider themselves satisfactorily integrated into society. Organized official interaction between religious communities is infrequent.
Some non-Orthodox religious communities believe that they have been unable to communicate with officials of the Orthodox Church and claim that the attitude of the Orthodox Church toward their faiths has increased social intolerance toward their religions. The Orthodox Church has issued a list of practices and religious groups, including members of Jehovah's Witnesses, Evangelical Protestants, Scientologists, Mormons, Baha'is, and others, which it believes to be sacrilegious. Officials of the Orthodox Church have acknowledged that they refuse to enter into dialog with religious groups considered harmful to Greek Orthodox worshipers; church leaders instruct Orthodox Greeks to shun members of these faiths.
In October 1999, a rededication of a synagogue in Hania, Crete as a house of prayer and a cultural center was marred by public criticism of the event by the regional governor. However, the Minister of National Education and Religion, and other government and Greek Orthodox officials, lent their support to the rededication. A new Jewish museum opened in Thessaloniki in early March 2001 and was officially inaugurated by the Jewish community in Thessaloniki and the Greek authorities in May 2001. A temporary Anne Frank exhibition was displayed in Thessaloniki in April 2001.
Conservative Orthodox clerics protested Pope John Paul II's May 4 to 5, 2001, visit to the country; however, the Government distanced itself from these extremists, as did Archbishop Christodoulos and most members of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Government's decision in 2000 to remove religious affiliation from national identity cards led to a national debate. The issue led Archbishop Christodoulos to organize religious protest rallies in Thessaloniki and Athens in June 2000. Both demonstrations drew over 100,000 supporters. Archbishop Christodoulos vociferously criticized the Government and launched a campaign to collect signatures to petition the Government to allow religious affiliation as an option on national identity cards. The Orthodox Church alleges that it has collected 3 million signatures. In March 2001, Archbishop Christodoulos blamed "the Jews" for the government's decision to remove notation of religious affiliation on national identity cards. The Government distanced itself from Christodoulos' statement.
In April 2001, vandals desecrated the Jewish Cemetery of Trikala.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Embassy officers meet regularly with working-level officials responsible for religious affairs in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education and Religious Affairs. The Ambassador and Political Counselor discussed religious freedom with senior government officials and religious leaders. The U.S. Embassy also regularly discusses religious freedom issues in contacts with other government officials, including mayors, regional leaders, and Members of Parliament. Officers from the Embassy and the Consulate General in Thessaloniki meet regularly with representatives of various religious groups, including the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities. In March 2001, in the first visit by a U.S. Ambassador to Thrace in 34 years, the Ambassador met with leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities. The U.S. Embassy investigates every complaint of religious discrimination brought to its attention.
Employees of the U.S. Embassy's consular section have helped Bible Baptist clergy get permission to visit all prisoners, not only those of the Baptist faith. The consular section also has actively followed issues relating to religious workers' visas and property taxes.
The U.S. Embassy and Consulate promote and support initiatives related to religious freedom. For example, Embassy staff has gathered leaders of the religious minority groups in Athens together for representational dinners. Participants noted the uniqueness and the value of such gatherings in Greece.
The Ambassador has been an open supporter of the Jewish Museum and the Jewish community in general. During an official visit to Rhodes, he visited the Jewish and Muslim communities. In April 2001, the Consul General and the Deputy Chief of Mission attended the opening of the Anne Frank exhibition displayed in Thessaloniki.
The Ambassador and embassy officials regularly visit religious sites throughout the country, invite representatives of all faiths to social events, and meet with individuals of all faiths.