The government provided funding and other benefits to the Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, to the Muslim community of Thrace and the Jewish communities, not available to other religious groups. Courts ruled favorably on one application by a group seeking legal recognition as religious entity; rulings for the applications of two more separate religious groups were pending at year’s end. Some members of the Thrace Muslim community objected to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing for direct election of muftis. Muslims also criticized the lack of government action to provide for Islamic cemeteries outside of Thrace. The government assigned three religious officials to provide services to Muslims in migrant facilities. The government had still not built a mosque for which parliament approved funding in 2014. The government approved permits for 11 houses of prayer, including the first Muslim prayer house outside of Thrace and greater Athens in Thiva. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had improperly ruled against the son of a Jehovah’s Witness who had applied for civilian service as an alternative to military service in 2013.
According to media reports, on July 24 in Thrace, participants in a demonstration organized by GD threw rocks and shouted racially charged slogans, including “Turks, Mongols, murderers,” at approximately 800 members of the officially-recognized Muslim minority who were commemorating the 21st anniversary of the death of Muslim Member of Parliament (MP) Ahmet Sadik, the founder of the Muslim minority party of Equality, Peace and Friendship. This was reportedly the first time demonstrators had disrupted this memorial event. Police intervened by using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd. No arrests were made.
On May 25, the criminal trial of 69 far-right GD party members and supporters, including 18 of its current and former MPs, resumed after a five-month break. Charges, related to a string of attacks against migrants and others, include murder, conspiracy, weapons possession, and membership in a criminal organization. The trial continued through the end of the year.
On July 13, human rights activists, including members of the NGOs Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and the Humanist Union of Greece, reported 25 criminal prosecutions and trials since 2014 involving charges based on blasphemy law. At least one of them was registered during the year in the city of Drama, against a local soccer player who reportedly offended Christian believers by “insulting the divine” with comments he made during a game. The trial of a blogger appealing his 2014 conviction for blasphemy and his sentence to prison for 10 months remained pending. Government officials from the Syriza Party and some of the opposition parties represented in parliament, such as the Democratic Alignment and the River, publicly stated that existing blasphemy legislation should be abolished.
The government continued to state that Muslims who were 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 related to it, such as right to bilingual education, special quotas for university entry and jobs in the public sector, the use of sharia in family matters, and optional Islamic religious classes in public schools.
Courts received and agreed to examine applications filed by four religious groups seeking recognition as religious legal entities: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, German-speaking Protestants, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and Old Calendarists in the region of Oropos and Fyli, in greater Athens. A court granted recognition to the first group; court decisions for the remainder were pending at year’s end except for German-speaking Protestants, who decided to withdraw their request.
Religious groups that did not have religious entity status and had never received house of prayer permits, including Scientologists, ISKON, and polytheistic Hellenic groups, were only able to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by those religious groups.
The Greek Orthodox Church received direct support from the government, including payment of salaries, religious training for clergy, and funding for religious instruction in schools. It maintained an institutionalized link to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, which continued to partially fund retirement pensions of Orthodox monks and monitor vocational training for Orthodox clergy.
Members of the Thrace Muslim minority continued to press for direct election of muftis. The government responded the practice of government appointment was appropriate because the muftis had judicial powers and the government appointed all judges. Academics and activists said the ability of courts in Thrace to provide judicial oversight of muftis’ decisions was limited by the lack of translation of sharia into Greek and lack of familiarity with sharia in general. They also continued to criticize the appointment by the government, rather than election of members of the Muslim minority in Thrace entrusted with the administration of the awqafs.
Muslim leaders criticized the lack of Muslim cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. Additionally, Muslim leaders said municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years because of shortage of space contravened Islamic religious law. The government operated at least three unofficial cemeteries for the burial of Muslim migrant and asylum seekers, in Lesvos, Schisto (in Athens), and Evros. On April 8, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church agreed, at the request of the government, to grant 20,000 square meters (215,000 square feet) inside an existing cemetery at Schisto for the burial of Muslims.
On January 15, the media reported that three municipalities, Athens, Thessaloniki, and Patras, initiated the process to establish crematories by searching for suitable land and seeking approval of the necessary municipal committees. The city of Patras was reported to have identified a suitable plot of land and was in the process of requesting the issuance of a presidential decree to deter appeals by precertifying the land transfer as constitutional. As of year’s end, there were no crematories in the country.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that police in Athens and in provincial towns attempted to intimidate and discourage preaching or distributing and displaying information and religious material in public, citing prohibition of proselytism by the constitution.
The Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod criticized the government for failing to issue a denunciation and not taking action after 26 individuals entered the Thessaloniki cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Church and interrupted services on July 3. The government subsequently issued a statement condemning the incident.
The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs assigned three Islamic experts to offer religious services in camps hosting Muslim refugees and migrants in the region of central and eastern Macedonia. The three experts included an imam from Xanthi, the director of one of the two Islamic religious schools in Thrace, and a scholastic expert in Islamic law and studies. On June 6, the Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reconstruction issued a directive to the managers of reception facilities hosting migrants and refugees, instructing them to alter food distribution times – and the type of food served – to allow Muslims to observe the Ramadan fast.
Muslim leaders continued to criticize the absence of a mosque in Athens, the financing of which the government approved in 2014. On July 13, the Council of State overruled an appeal submitted by local residents of Votanikos, where the Athens official mosque is to be built, requesting the tendering process for the mosque be ruled unconstitutional due to environmental protection considerations. On August 4, parliament approved by a wide majority an amendment to regulate technical issues and accelerate the construction of the mosque. The amendment provided for the division of the plot from other land, the construction of new buildings, and the creation of parking spaces and other facilities. On October 10, the Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, and Networks signed a contract with a consortium of four companies for the building of the mosque. The construction is slated to be completed by the end of 2017. On November 3, riot police ended an occupation by a group of protestors at the Votanikos site after the mayor of Athens asked for the central government’s intervention. GD praised the occupiers.
On February 26, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued a permit to establish a Muslim house of prayer in the city of Thiva. This was the first permit granted to a Muslim house of prayer operating outside of the greater Athens region, excluding Thrace. The ministry also issued 10 additional house of prayer permits. These were granted to a Buddhist group in the Chalkidiki region, a Coptic Orthodox group in Athens, a Protestant group in Athens, a Pentecostal group in Veria, and to Jehovah’s Witnesses in two separate locations in Attica, in the islands of Corfu and Cephalonia, as well as in Trikala and Drama. The ministry additionally approved the construction of five new houses of worship: four of them were granted to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Thessaloniki, Karditsa, Aliveri and Maroussi in Athens and one for an Old Calendarist Orthodox church in Kryoneri, in greater Athens.
On May 10, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs revoked, for the first time ever, a house of prayer permit of the “Church of Christian Faith.” The ministry cited a pending judicial investigation and complaints filed against the house’s religious leader for conducting marriages of convenience and weddings of minors without the consent or prior knowledge of their parents.
Some religious groups reiterated complaints from previous years that the house of prayer permit process constrained freedom of religion.
On February 7, the daily newspaper Kathimerini reported the Greek Orthodox Church was unable to sell or utilize 123 real estate property assets it owned in the Athens, Vouliagmeni, Piraeus, and Thessaloniki regions. According to the report, the authorities had previously initiated procedures to expropriate these assets without concluding the process or providing any compensation. The disposition of the assets had been pending for years while the Orthodox Church was unable to sell or use them. A portion of these properties was considered by the state to be forestry lands in need of protection; as of the end of the year, the Greek Orthodox Church was in the process of challenging the government’s stance.
The government continued to provide public space free of charge to groups of Muslims whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions. On July 7, Eleftheria news reported Muslim migrant residents prayed in a public square in Larisa. The report stated some local inhabitants expressed discontent with the use of a public square for open-air prayer. Officials from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs contacted the Larisa municipality, which verified that it had approved a request filed by local Muslims for the use of the square. The ministry advised the municipality to grant use of interior rather than open-air facilities in response to similar requests in the future.
On March 30, the media reported on a new circular by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs restricting the presence of outside visitors in school classes for the remainder of the school year. Speeches and presentations by outside visitors to school audiences had to take place strictly after hours, and only following authorization from school principals and teachers and the written consent of parents. Some Greek Orthodox Church leaders interpreted the policy as a government effort to restrict access of priests to schools for purposes other than teaching formal religion classes.
In September the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs sent new guidelines to school principals and staff for the teaching of religion class in schools. According to the guidelines, religious education should not be based solely on the official textbook – which primarily covers Greek Orthodox doctrine – and teachers were urged to discuss and initiate projects dealing with other religions. The government stated students needed to become more familiar with other religions present in the country and the world. Greek Orthodox Church leaders objected and reacted publicly to this change, stating the government was disrespectful to the constitution and to the faith of the majority of the country’s citizens.
The government provided funding to the Muslim minority in Thrace to select and pay salaries of teachers of Islam in state schools and the salaries of the three official muftis and some imams. The government funded Catholic religious training and teachers’ salaries in state schools on the islands of Syros and Tinos, and also provided funding for awareness raising activities and trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events, and for Holocaust education training for teachers.
Some leaders of the recognized Muslim minority continued to criticize the absence of bilingual kindergartens in Thrace. Greek government authorities stated that Greek-language kindergartens helped students to better integrate into the larger society.
On April 19, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos signed a decree establishing a special division of Muslim Studies within the Department of Theology at the School of Theology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, beginning in the 2016-17 academic year. Metropolitan of Thessaloniki Anthimos publicly objected to the establishment in Thessaloniki rather than in Thrace, where the recognized Muslim minority resides. Anthimos argued that Islam and Christianity could not coexist in the same school and warned that clashes might result if students of the two disciplines accidentally or purposefully insulted each other.
On July 13, GHM, Minority Rights Group Greece, and the Humanist Union of Greece again stated courts did not always enforce the right of witnesses to take an alternate secular oath, noting even Supreme Court prosecutors failed to apply this legal provision.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to state 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 September 15, the ECHR ruled the country the article of the European Convention on Human Rights providing for the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in the case of a conscientious objector brought by the son of a Jehovah’s Witness who stated he was influenced by his mother’s religious beliefs in forming his own pacifist views. A government committee had rejected the objector’s application for alternative service in 2013 and the Council of State had upheld the committee’s decision. The ECHR ruled the process lacked procedural impartiality, independence, and the equal representation required by domestic law; stipulating the government award 5,000 euros ($5,269) to be paid to the conscientious objector.
The Central Board of Jewish Communities (KIS) expressed concern about anti-Semitic attitudes among GD party members, including inside the parliament. On March 19, activists monitoring anti-Semitic rhetoric and Holocaust trivialization criticized on social media Minister for Interior and Administrative Reconstruction Panayotis Kouroumplis as well as New Democracy Spokesperson Giorgos Koumoutsakos for statements they made on March 18 comparing conditions in the unofficial refugee and migrant camp of Idomeni to the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau.
In May GD MP Christos Pappas stated Israel constituted “the eternal enemy of Greece and Orthodoxy” during a hearing of parliament’s Standing Committee on National Defense and Foreign Affairs. KIS condemned this statement.
On September 15, Deputy Education Minister Theodosis Pelegrinis stated in a parliamentary speech, “the Jewish people appropriated the Holocaust in order to earn the sympathy of the civilized world and be justified.” The president of KIS condemned the speech. Political parties of the opposition, such as New Democracy, PASOK, and the River, also denounced the speech.
The GD official website and weekly paper continued publishing references to conspiracy theories involving international Zionism and alleged plans for the country’s “Islamization,” while opposing the construction of an official mosque in Athens and the operation of private Muslim houses of prayer. For example, on October 24 the website posted a video of GD leader Nikos Michaloliakos’ commenting “it is an insult to Greek history and civilization to build a mosque in the shadow of the Acropolis.” On October 2, the website posted an article blaming the “Jewish lobby of the United States” for “dismantling the Hellenic state.”
On May 9, KIS wrote to the Greek Tourism National Organization to protest its website’s reference to the custom of burning an effigy of Judas (practiced during the Easter season) as “folkloristic,” stating it perpetuated anti-Semitic feelings. Jewish groups stated they saw the practice as encouraging the belief that the Jews killed Jesus, long a source of anti-Semitism. KIS requested its removal and the GTNO complied. KIS noted the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church had an explicit and long-standing demand for the abolition of this custom.
On January 27, President Pavlopoulos inaugurated a memorial to the Greek Righteous Among the Nations at the main Athens synagogue, to honor non-Jews who risked their lives during World War II to save Jews. On the same day, for the first time in history according to KIS, parliament held a special plenary session to honor Greek Jews who died in the Holocaust and those who survived as well as non-Jewish Greeks who protected Jews. A Greek Jewish delegation, including Holocaust survivors, and representatives of all parliamentary parties except GD attended the session. Speaker of Parliament Nikos Voutsis announced parliament would participate in sponsoring the creation of a memorial space in Auschwitz for the Greek Jews who perished there.
Most parties represented in parliament issued statements on Holocaust Remembrance Day, paying homage to the thousands of Greek Jews who fell victim to the Nazis and condemning anti-Semitism, Nazism, and Holocaust denial. A series of commemorative events took place in many cities around the country with the presence of government officials throughout the year, such as the minister of education, regional governors, city mayors, MPs, and a former prime minister.
On February 2, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the publication of a volume entitled “The Greek Righteous Among the Nations.” The work – published in collaboration with the Foundation for the Memory of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust Yad Vashem – was the final installment in a trilogy dedicated to the history of Greek Jewish communities, their destruction in the Holocaust, and the rescue of dozens of Greek Jews by Greek Christians.
On February 2, the media reported on the availability of a new mobile application allowing users to discover Thessaloniki’s Sephardic Jewish heritage. The application was made available with the collaboration of foreign embassies and various other entities.
On March 4 and 5 in Kavala, the History and Ethnology School of the Democritus University of Thrace, in cooperation with the local Union of Philologists, organized a Holocaust education training seminar for 40 teachers.
On April 20, the speaker of parliament unveiled a monument inside the parliament building dedicated to Greek Jewish MPs who were Holocaust victims.
In June the Secretariat General for Religious Affairs funded an annual commemorative trip to Auschwitz for 84 students from 19 schools throughout the country.
In March Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis signed a declaration against anti-Semitism, joining 60 other European mayors participating in an American Jewish Committee initiative to combat anti-Semitism.
On January 22, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued a circular urging regional primary and secondary school directorates and principals to dedicate two hours of their school program to Holocaust-related activities on January 27, in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day. In response, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris called on schools to add more hours of Holocaust education into their curricula. Boutaris publicly stated the term Holocaust is wrongfully used to describe different tragedies such as mass killings of unarmed populations during the Nazi occupation and argued the misuse of the term Holocaust was aimed at lessening the importance of the Holocaust.