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Greece


International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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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.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. 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 U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 81,935 square miles, and its population is an estimated 10.9 million. Approximately 97 percent of citizens 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 Turcophone Muslim community in Thrace, which is accorded official status under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the Government does not keep statistics on religious groups; censuses do not ask for religious affiliation. (Officials estimate the size of the Turcophone Muslim community at 98,000 though other estimates range up to 140,000.) Ethnic Greeks are a sizeable percentage of most Christian non-Orthodox denominations. Aside from the indigenous Muslim minority in Thrace, Muslim immigrants in the rest of the country are estimated at 200,000 to 300,000. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses are estimated at 50,000; Catholics at 50,000; Protestants, including evangelicals, at 30,000; and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) at 300. Scientologists claim 500 active registered members. The longstanding Jewish community numbers approximately 5,000 adherents; an estimated 2,000 reside in Thessaloniki. Approximately 250 members of the Baha'i Faith, the majority of whom are citizens of non-Greek ethnicity, are scattered throughout the country. Followers of the Ancient Greek religions claim 2,000 members. There also are 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 group is the Albanians (approximately 700,000 including legal and illegal residents); most are nominally Muslim, while others are Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, but the majority are nonpracticing. The Muslim immigrant population in the country continues to grow.

Catholics reside primarily 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 and a few Russian and Albanian immigrants. Other groups, such as Mormons and Anglicans, consist of an approximately equal number of ethnic Greeks and non-Greeks.

The Turcophone Muslim community, concentrated in Thrace with small communities in Rhodes, Kos, and in Athens, is composed mainly of ethnic Turks but also includes Pomaks and Roma. A growing number of Muslim immigrants live in Athens and in rural areas.

Scientologists and followers of the Ancient Greek religions, most of whom are located in the Athens area, practice their faith through registered nonprofit civil law organizations.

Foreign missionary groups in the country, including Protestants and Mormons, are active; the Mormons state that they sponsor approximately 80 missionaries in the country each year.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ (Greek Orthodoxy) as the prevailing religion and provides for freedom of religion. 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 exercises significant political and economic influence. The Government, under the direction of the Ministry of Education and Religion, provides some financial support. For example, the Government pays for the salaries and religious training of clergy, and finances the maintenance of Orthodox Church buildings.

Additionally, in 2001, the Government added a conscientious objector provision in the Constitution. Also the Government has an effective, well-run Ombudsman's office, which successfully handled an increasing number of cases. These two developments helped foster government tolerance of minority religions.

The Orthodox Church, Judaism, and Islam are the only groups considered to be "legal persons of public law." Other religions are considered "legal persons of private law." In practice the primary distinction is that the Civil Code's provisions pertaining to corporations regulate the establishment of "houses of prayer" for religions besides the Orthodox Church, Judaism, or Islam. For example, these religions cannot own property as religious entities; 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 religious groups that are classified as private entities cannot be represented in court as religious entities and cannot will or inherit property as a religious entity. The law extended legal recognition as a private entity 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 canon law. The Catholic Church unsuccessfully has sought government recognition of its canon law since 1999.

Two laws from the 1930s require recognized or "known" religious groups to obtain "house of prayer" permits from the Ministry of Education and Religion to open houses of worship. No formal mechanism exists to gain recognition as a known religion. By law the Ministry may base its decision to issue permits on the opinion of the local Orthodox bishop, and documentation provided by Scientology representatives and the Greek Orthodox Church indicates it does consult with local bishops in some cases. According to the Ministry's officials, applications for additional houses of prayer are numerous and are approved routinely; however, the Scientologists of Greece have not been able to register or build a house of prayer. Followers of the ancient Greek religions applied twice in the last three years for a house of prayer permit but have not received an official response to their applications, despite advice of the Ombudsman to the Ministry of Education and Religions to officially respond to their requests.

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, because the Government subsidizes the Orthodox Church, while other groups are self‑supporting.

Muslim religious leaders say there are approximately 375 mosques in Thrace. The Government pays the salaries of the two official Muslim religious leaders, or "muftis," as well as all officially recognized imams. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne gives Muslims in Thrace the right to maintain social and charitable organizations called "wakfs" and allows muftis to render religious judicial services in the area of family law.

The Treaty of Lausanne provides that the Turcophone Muslim minority has the right to Turkish-language education, with a reciprocal entitlement for the Greek minority in Istanbul (approximately 3,000 persons). Western Thrace has secular Turkish-language bilingual schools and two Koranic schools run by the State. As of 2004, approximately 7,000 Muslim students are enrolled in Turkish bilingual grammar schools and 1,250 attend minority high schools. Another 280 students attend the Islamic schools, many of whom become schoolteachers. The majority of Thrace Muslims, approximately 3,050, attend public secondary schools, which are deemed better preparation for Greek-language universities.

Special consideration is given to Thrace Muslims for admission to technical institutes and universities that set aside 0.5 percent of the total number of places for them every year. Approximately 800 Thrace Muslim students take advantage of this affirmative action program; a small number choose to attend university in Turkey.

The Government maintains that Muslims outside Thrace are not covered by the Treaty of Lausanne and therefore do not enjoy those rights provided by the treaty. Muslim parents complain that hundreds of Turcophone children in the Athens area do not receive instruction in Greek as a second language, other than in one multicultural elementary education "pilot school."

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In 2000, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs rejected the application of the Scientologists for recognition and a house of prayer permit on the grounds that Scientology "is not a religion." The Church of Scientology is registered as a philosophical organization because the group's legal counsel advised that the Government would not recognize Scientology as a religion.

Minority religious groups have requested that the Government abolish laws regulating house of prayer permits, which are required to open houses of worship. Local police have the authority to bring minority churches to court that operate or build places of worship without a permit.

Nikodim Tsarknias, a former Greek Orthodox priest who is now a priest of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, held religious services in Macedonian, the language of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, without a house of prayer permit. In May Tsarknias was sentenced to 3 months in prison by the Aridea Criminal Court of First Instance on charges of establishing and operating a church without authorization. The jail sentence was under appeal at the end of the period covered by this report.

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 provide 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.

Although Jehovah's Witnesses are recognized as a "known" religion, members continued to face some harassment during the period covered by this report in the form of arbitrary identity checks, difficulties in burying their dead, and local officials' resistance to construction of places of worship (which in most cases was resolved quickly and favorably). A decision on an appeal by the Jehovah's Witnesses regarding a property dispute over taxation rates involving their officially recognized headquarters remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

In the past, several religious denominations, including foreign Mormons and Greek citizen Jews, reported difficulty in renewing the visas of some non-EU citizen ministers and rabbis because the Government does not have a distinct religious workers' visa category. As part of obligations under the Schengen Treaty and the Treaty of Amsterdam, all non-EU citizens face a more restrictive visa and residence regime than they did in the past.

Non-Orthodox citizens have claimed that they face career limits within the military, police, fire-fighting forces, and the civil service because of their religions. In the military, generally only members of the Orthodox faith become officers, leading some members of other faiths to declare themselves Orthodox. Few Muslim military personnel 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 non-Orthodox partners, which might cause them to be passed over for promotion. In addition, the rigorous training requirements for advancement also require a solid educational background and fluency in Greek, an obstacle for some Turcophone Muslims.

Muslim citizens are underrepresented in public sector employment and in state-owned industries and corporations, which many observers claim is due to the education level of the available applicant pool, not to religious discrimination. One Turcophone Muslim currently holds a seat in Parliament. In Xanthi and Komotini, Muslims hold seats on the prefectural and town councils and serve as local mayors. Under a new program, Thrace municipalities are hiring Muslims as public liaisons in citizen service centers. Muslims claim they are hired for lower level positions.

Unlike in Thrace, the growing Muslim community in Athens (composed primarily of economic migrants from Thrace, South Asia, and the Middle East and estimated by local press and experts to be between 120,000 and 300,000 strong) still its own official mosque or any official cleric to officiate at religious functions, including funerals. During the period covered by the report, press reports in 2003 and 2004 claimed that there are about 25 "unofficial" mosques in Athens. Members of the Muslim community must use the official muftis in Thrace for religious rites, so they always transport their deceased there for religious burials. Although the Parliament approved a bill allowing construction of the first Islamic cultural center and mosque in the Athens area, construction had not started by the end of the period covered by this report. The Archbishop of Greece and members of the Orthodox Church oppose the cultural center, claiming it may "spread the ideology of Islam and the Arab world" rather than act as a simple museum.

Differences remain within the Turcophone Muslim community and between segments of the community and the Government regarding the means of selecting muftis. Under existing law, the Government appoints two muftis and one assistant mufti, all residents in Thrace. The Government argued that it must appoint the muftis, as is the practice in Muslim countries, 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. Hence the Government selects a committee of Turcophone Muslim notables, which recommends appointments to the 10-year mufti terms. Some Muslims accept the authority of the two government-appointed muftis; other Muslims have "elected" two muftis to serve their communities since they maintain that the government of a non-Muslim country cannot appoint muftis. There is no established procedure or practice for these nongovernmental elections.

Controversy between the Muslim community and the Government also continues over the management and self-government of the "wakfs," particularly regarding the government's appointment of officials to serve on administrative boards that govern the wakfs and the degree and type of administrative control, which prior to the 1960s was exercised by the Muslim community. In response to objections from some Muslims that the appointment of officials weakened the financial autonomy of the wakfs and violated the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, a 1996 presidential decree placed the wakfs under the administration of a committee for 3 years as an interim measure pending resolution of outstanding problems. The interim period is extended every 2 years by presidential decree. Discussions within the former Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government and the New Democracy party in the period before national elections in March have not resulted in any reforms to wakf administration.
Members of missionary faiths report having difficulties with harassment and police detention due to antiproselytizing laws. Church officials express concern that antiproselytizing laws remain on the books, although such laws no longer hinder their ministering to the poor and to children.

A law on alternative forms of mandatory national service for conscientious objectors with religious and ideological reasons took effect and provides that conscientious objectors may work in state hospitals, municipal and public services for 36 months in lieu of mandatory military service. Conscientious objector groups generally characterized the legislation, enacted in 1998, as a positive first step, but criticized the 36-month alternative service term for being punitive, because it is two and a half times longer than the regular 12-month period of military service. Alternative service for parents of 3 or more children is 15 months, while it is 3 months for nonconscientious objectors. Also, alternative service for repatriated Greeks is 20 months, while it is 6 months for nonconscientious objectors. Since 1998, all members of Jehovah's Witnesses who wished to submit applications for alternative nonmilitary service have been permitted to do so.

The law prohibits the functioning of private schools in buildings owned by non-Orthodox religious foundations; however, this law is not enforced in practice.

Orthodox religious instruction in public, primary, and secondary schools is mandatory for all Orthodox students. Non-Orthodox students are exempt from this requirement. 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; hence these children sometimes attend Orthodox religious instruction by default.

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 entered into full effect in 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.

During the reporting period, appeals courts in Thessaloniki overturned government tax office decisions to refuse nonprofit status to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The law prohibits cremation, and Buddhist citizens have claimed that the lack of cremation as an available means of burial infringes on their religious rights. Citizens who wish to be cremated must be shipped at significant cost to Bulgaria or other countries.

The dispute over religious autonomy between Esphigmenou monastery on Mt. Athos and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, both of which administer the region, continued. By the end of the period covered by this report, the Esphigmenou Monastery was awaiting a decision by the council of state regarding their appeal of a 2002 eviction order against the monks, but religious authorities claimed they wanted to settle this dispute out of court.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Some non-Orthodox church leaders report that their permanent members (non-missionaries) do not encounter discriminatory treatment. However, police regularly detain Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses (on average once every 2 weeks) usually after receiving complaints that the individuals engage in proselytizing. In most cases, these individuals are held for several hours at a police station and then released with no charges filed. Many report that, during this time, they are not allowed to call their lawyers and that they are abused verbally by police officers for their religious beliefs. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses appealed to the Ombudsman to denounce a series of incidents in September and October 2003 in Sparta involving the intimidating behavior of the police toward church members who were distributing religious literature to passersby.

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Religious affiliation is very closely linked to ethnicity. Many attribute the preservation of 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 exercises significant social, political, and economic influence and it owns a considerable, although undetermined, amount of property.

Many Greeks consider an ethnic Greek 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 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 the 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 dialogue with religious groups considered harmful to Orthodox worshipers; church leaders instruct Orthodox Greeks to shun members of these faiths.

There were a number of Holocaust commemorative events throughout the country during the period covered by this report. A memorial to Greek-Jewish veterans of World War II was unveiled in 2003 in Thessaloniki, and in April a commemorative stone was placed at the railway station from which Jews were deported to concentration camps. The Government passed legislation establishing January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Anti-Semitism continues to exist, both in the mainstream and extremist press. The Greek public often does not clearly distinguish between Israelis and Jewish persons. The Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League denounced the Greek press for anti-Semitic articles and cartoons on several occasions during the period covered by this report, particularly after Israeli forces killed Hamas leader Sheik Yassin. The Greek Jewish Community publicly refused to support the Wiesenthal Center's denunciations, but asserted that the line between opposition to Israeli policies and attitudes toward Jews in general is often blurred, giving rise to anti-Semitic sentiment in the media and among the public.

Vandalism of Jewish monuments continued to be a problem during the period covered by this report, although the Government condemned the acts. Jewish monuments in Ioannina were desecrated three times in 2003. The Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki was desecrated in February 2003. Police have been unable to find perpetrators. Anti-Semitic graffiti were painted, removed by authorities, and repainted in several spots in one of the busiest highways of Greece. Some schoolbooks still carry negative references to Roman Catholics, Jewish persons, and others. Bookstores in Northern Greece sold and displayed anti-Semitic literature including the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

In November 2003, Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis called Jewish persons "the root of evil" but later qualified his statement by saying he had meant to criticize the government of Israel. The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece said Theodorakis' statements recalled "ideas of the dark Middle Ages and slogans used by Nazi Germany" and spread "winds of bigotry and racism."

The Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory in November 2003 warning Jewish visitors about "the failure of Greece to curb growing anti-Semitism." Jewish community leaders do not support the advisory. The Wiesenthal Center protested the revival of traditions such as the "Easter burning of the Jew," which propagate hatred and fanaticism against Jews.

LAOS, a minority party, advocates for extreme right nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. LAOS leader George Karatzaferis won a seat in the European Parliament in June elections. The extreme right-wing group "Golden Dawn" regularly paints anti-Semitic graffiti on bridges and other structures.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall policy to promote 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 other Embassy representatives 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 and minority groups, including the Greek Orthodox Church and the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities. The U.S. Embassy and consulate general investigate every complaint of religious discrimination brought to their attention.

The Ambassador and embassy officers discussed the need for improved teaching of the Holocaust in elementary and secondary schools; the Ministry of Education is working with the Jewish Museum of Greece on a teacher-training conference in September and on increased school programs.

The consular section actively follows 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 gathers leaders of the religious minority groups in Athens together for representational dinners. In 2002 employees of the U.S. Embassy's consular section assisted Bible Baptist clergy to receive permission to visit all prisoners, not only those of the Baptist faith.

The Ambassador and embassy officials regularly visit religious sites throughout the country and meet with representatives of all faiths, soliciting their participation in Embassy social events.



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