Some government measures continued to restrict the activities and practices of minority religious groups. The government provided limited funding and several tax exemptions and privileges to the three groups recognized as public law entities. The Orthodox Church continued to receive the largest amount of direct support from the government, including payment of salaries and training for clergy, although in contrast to previous years there were no recorded complaints that government support of this type was discriminatory. The government promoted interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance in education.
On January 16, an Athens court convicted a blogger for “habitual blasphemy and offense of religion” for creating a satirical page on social media mocking a dead Orthodox monk. The arrest of the blogger in 2012 resulted in many people accusing the government of infringing on the freedom of speech. The court gave the man a 10-month suspended sentence.
A number of religious groups stated the October 1 law on religious legal entities positively addressed requests they had made in past years to receive treatment equal to the Greek Orthodox Church with regard to legal status and, in the case of the Catholic Church, to obtain recognition of its canon law. Although the legislation did not address the issue of financial support from the government, in contrast to previous years there were no recorded complaints that government practices subsidizing Greek Orthodox Church activities were discriminatory. As part of the financial reforms required by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, all religious groups, including the Greek Orthodox Church, were subject to taxation on their property owned and used for non-religious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes remained exempt from taxation per the 2013 change in the law.
In May the Ministries of Education and Religious Affairs; Environment, Energy and Climate Change; Public Order and Citizen Protection; and Health issued a joint ministerial decision regarding the granting of house of prayer permits. The decision required approvals from local urban planning departments to attest to the compliance of a proposed house of prayer with local, public health, and safety regulations. Once obtained, planning approvals had to be submitted to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs together with the documents describing the basic principles and rituals of the religious group, along with a biography of the religious minister or leader. Groups eligible to apply for house of prayer permits had to be classified as known religions without hidden doctrines and with rites of worship open to the public. Proselytism was prohibited, and the groups must not have adversely affected public order or morality. A separate permit was required for each physical place of worship.
A religious group that had obtained at least one valid permit was considered a “known religion” and acquired protection under the law; this protection was reiterated by the October 1 religious entities law. Religious groups that had never received house of prayer permits and did not receive legal status under the October 1 law, including Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, and polytheistic Hellenic groups, could not function as religious legal entities, and some religious groups functioned as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by those religious groups.
During the year, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs issued eight house of prayer permits and did not reject any applications. Prior to the May ministerial decision, the ministry returned requests for permits pending approval to applicants for revision and resubmission under the new process. Some religious groups argued that the house of prayer permit process administratively constrained freedom of religion.
The government continued to provide space free of charge to some groups of Muslims whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions. Police reportedly closed some informal mosques for operating without permits and in locations which did not meet safety standards for public spaces.
The Orthodox Church received the largest amount of direct support from the government, including payment of salaries, religious training for clergy, and funding religious instruction in schools. It maintained an institutionalized link to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, which sets provisions for retirement of Orthodox monks and monitors vocational training for Orthodox clergy.
Muslim leaders in Athens continued to criticize the absence of a government-funded mosque and the lack of Muslim cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating that this obliged Muslims to travel to Thrace for Islamic burials; additionally, municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years were said to contravene Islamic religious law. In July the Council of State rejected a complaint opposing construction of a government-financed mosque in Athens and approved the use of 1.1 million euros ($1.3 million) in state funding for the project. The court deemed the mosque’s construction necessary in accordance with Greece’s constitution and international treaty obligations. Although administrative procedures moved forward, construction of the mosque had not begun by year’s end.
In response to the July 31 passage of a law enabling the creation of crematory facilities, the Orthodox Church issued a statement opposing establishing crematory facilities within Orthodox Church parish cemeteries and stated its legal experts would review existing laws to determine to what extent cremation followed church practice and tradition.
Members of the Thrace Muslim minority continued to press for direct election of muftis and imams. In response, the government stated that it appointed all judges and the muftis had judicial powers. Observers said the ability of courts in Thrace to provide judicial oversight of muftis’ decisions was limited by lack of translation of most sharia into Greek. On February 7, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs announced the establishment of an unpaid committee, consisting of the three muftis in Thrace, to produce a handbook on interpersonal relations according to the Hanafi School of Islamic law as a nonbinding guide for family and succession law. Some leaders of the recognized Muslim minority criticized the absence of bilingual kindergartens in Thrace as required by law.
The government maintained that Muslims not part of the recognized minority created by the Treaty of Lausanne were not covered by that treaty and therefore did not have the rights provided under it.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations argued the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternate service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and for those serving in the military (nine months) was discriminatory.
On October 2, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) published its finding in a case from 2009 in which an individual complained he had to assert he did not adhere to the Greek Orthodox faith in order to avoid taking the standard oath that was religious in nature in a criminal proceeding. The ECHR found the requirement to reveal one’s religious affiliation in this way was interference with the individual’s freedom of religion.
On October 16, the prosecutor handling the criminal investigation of the Golden Dawn Party released a 700-page document recommending that 70 party members, including all 18 of the party’s members of parliament, be indicted and stand trial for criminal offenses, including attacks on minority groups. Golden Dawn representatives had also made anti-Semitic statements, including during parliamentary debate, and had performed Nazi salutes. Of the original 78 defendants, 30 were in custody, and all of the original Golden Dawn members of parliament were stripped of their parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
On March 7, a Thessaloniki court gave a 16-month suspended sentence and a 2,500 euro fine ($3,041) to a doctor for violating the anti-racism law after he put up a sign outside his office that said “Jews not welcome” in German. Police found extremist propaganda and Nazi symbols in a search of his home; an appeal was pending at the end of the year.
The government took a number of steps to promote interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. On January 22, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and the Jewish Museum of Greece signed a memorandum of understanding to promote the history and culture of Greek Jews, train educators to teach about the Holocaust, organize activities to promote sensitivity among citizens, and provide scientific advisory support by the Jewish Museum to the ministry on those issues. On January 28, the prime minister attended a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the European Parliament and in his speech underscored the importance of remembrance and of lessons learned from history.
On February 6, representatives of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki agreed to re-establish a chair in Jewish Studies at the university, the largest in Greece. On May 12, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs announced its support for the second consecutive year of an educational trip by a group of non-Jewish teachers and students to the Auschwitz Museum.
On June 23-24, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, the Jewish Museum of Greece organized a two-day seminar for educators on the teaching of the Holocaust.
On July 30, the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs welcomed the decision of the Theology School of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki to establish an Islamic Studies Department.
On August 28, the re-elected mayor of Thessaloniki wore a yellow Star of David at his swearing-in ceremony in the presence of Golden Dawn members elected to the municipal council, in recognition of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.