Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits “proselytizing,” defined by law as “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 through inducement, fraudulent means, or taking advantage of the other person’s inexperience, trust, need, low intellect, or naivete.” The constitution prohibits worship that “disturbs public order or offends moral principles.” It allows prosecutors to seize publications that “offend Christianity” or other “known religions.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including “malicious blasphemy” and “religious insult,” both punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. Blasphemy cases may be brought before civil and criminal courts. The constitution enumerates the goals of public education, including “development of religious conscience among citizens.” Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the government.
The constitution states ministers of all known religions are subject to the same state supervision and the same obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It also states individuals are not exempt from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.
The Greek Orthodox Church, Jewish community, and Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious legal entities. The Catholic Church, Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches automatically acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also allows groups seeking recognition to become “religious legal entities” under civil law. The recognition process requires filing a request with the civil court, providing documents proving the group has “open rituals and no secret doctrines,” supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once the civil court recognizes the group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions.
A law passed on August 3 requires all religious officials of the Greek Orthodox Church, the muftiates of Thrace, and Jewish communities to register within a year in the electronic database maintained by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs. Established in 2014, the registry includes clergy and other staff of known religions and religious legal entities, but there was previously no requirement for Greek Orthodox priests, imams in Thrace, and rabbis to register.
With legal status, a religious group may transfer property and administer houses of prayer and worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations that they acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and in operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.
The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.
The law also provides a second method for groups to obtain government recognition; any religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. Local urban planning departments in charge of monitoring and enforcing public health and safety regulations certify that facilities designated to operate as places of worship fulfill the necessary standards. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a description of its basic principles and rituals and a biography of the religious minister or leader to the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs for final approval. The application for a house of prayer permit requires at least five signatory members of the group. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, European Union nationals, or legal residents of the country and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical place of worship.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne accords the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (auqafs). On October 11, parliament passed a law mandating that a local mufti request notarized consent from all parties if the parties wish for the mufti to adjudicate a family matter based on sharia. Absent this notarized consent from all parties in each dispute, family matters fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts. A law passed on August 1 requires muftis to retire at the same age – 67 – as other judicial authorities. This law also provides for the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to assume all operating expenses for the muftiates under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance Directorate General for Fiscal Monitoring. On December 19, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled Greece violated the ECHR by applying sharia to an inheritance case in 2014 in which a widow lost three-fourths of her inheritance after family members requested a sharia ruling on the matter without her consent. Under the updated law, the widow could request a review of this case by judicial authorities. A 1991 law authorizes the government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, to appoint three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office, with the possibility of extension. The law also allows a regional official to appoint temporary acting muftis until this committee convenes. During the year, all three muftiates in Thrace had temporary, acting muftis appointed under the latter procedure.
On July 19, parliament passed legislation reiterating an individual’s right to choose his or her burial and cremation location and mandating the creation of a new type of death certificate to detail this information. Disciplinary boards may fine employees of registries, medical doctors, forensic doctors, midwives, or employees in cremation facilities who do not comply with the law. The law protects an individual’s right to predetermine his or her form of funeral service and burial location in the presence of a notary. Individuals may designate the location and the method of funeral service under conditions that relate to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as to designate a person responsible for carrying out funeral preferences. Private citizens and municipal authorities may apply for permits to operate crematory facilities to benefit those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial. A presidential decree issued on June 29 standardizes permits for religious buildings, cemeteries, and crematory facilities.
The law allows halal and kosher slaughtering of animals in slaughterhouses but not in private residences or public areas.
All religious groups are subject to taxation on property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes remains exempt from taxation, as well as municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”
Home schooling is not permitted for children. The law requires all children to attend nine years of compulsory education in state or private schools and one year of compulsory preschool education in accordance with the official school curriculum. Religious instruction in primary and secondary schools is included in the curriculum. School textbooks focus mainly on Greek Orthodox teachings; however, they also include some basic information on some other “known religions.” Students may be exempted from religious instruction upon request if their parents state the students are not Greek Orthodox believers. The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros, and it includes provisions to make it easier for schools to hire and retain these religious instructors. The law also allows Muslim students in primary and secondary schools throughout the country to be absent for two days each for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
According to the law, parents may send their children to private religious schools, and private Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish schools operate in the country. As per the Lausanne Treaty, the government operates 148 secular Greek-Turkish bilingual schools and two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.
The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority in Thrace to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Similarly, 2 percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy are required to be from the Muslim minority in Thrace.
The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory military service for men. Conscientious objectors must serve 15 months of alternative service in state hospitals or municipal and public services.
The law prohibits discrimination and criminalizes hate speech on the grounds of religion. Individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred based on religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($5,700 to $22,900). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred, or has a threatening or abusive nature towards groups of individuals. The National Council against Racism and Xenophobia, an advisory body under the Ministry of Justice, Transparency, and Human Rights, is responsible for preventing, combating, monitoring, and recording racism and intolerance and for protecting individuals and groups targeted on several grounds, including religion. The National Commission for Human Rights, which comprises governmental and nongovernmental organization (NGO) members, serves as an independent advisory body to the government on all human rights issues.
The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs. Witnesses in trials must also take oaths before testifying in court and choose between a religious and a secular oath in both civil and criminal cases.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Police in Agrinio, located in the central part of the country, reported the arrest and detention of two Jehovah’s Witnesses after an Orthodox priest accused them of religious insult for distributing their materials in front of his church. Police released the accused individuals the following day without charge. On February 9, Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira filed a lawsuit for malicious blasphemy and religious insult against a theater group performing Jesus Christ Superstar. Two lawyers and another Orthodox priest filed separate lawsuits against the same theater group on similar grounds. There were no reports of government action against the theater group. Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports of arrests for blasphemy.
The criminal trial of 69 GD party members and supporters, including 18 of its current and former members of parliament, continued through the end of the year. The charges related to a string of attacks, including against Muslim migrants and Greeks; they included murder, conspiracy, weapons possession, and membership in a criminal organization. As of the end of the year, media reported 253 trial sessions had taken place and nearly 250 prosecution witnesses had testified in court since the trial began in 2015. The examination of approximately 230 defense witnesses was still pending at year’s end.
On March 8, police arrested 11 suspects during operations to dismantle the self-identified extreme-right militant group Combat 18. The prosecutor pressed for criminal and other charges for a series of offenses, including forming a criminal organization. Authorities ordered pretrial detention for four of the individuals. Combat 18 was accused of organizing 30 attacks, including arson and homemade bombs deployed in venues frequented by Muslim migrants and refugees.
No religious group applied to courts seeking recognition as a religious legal entity during the year.
Religious groups without religious entity status and no house of prayer permits, including Scientologists and ISKCON, continued to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of those religious groups, whose only option was a civil marriage.
The government approved permits for 11 houses of prayer, including eight for Jehovah’s Witnesses, one for Pentecostals, and two for Muslim groups. The government revoked one permit at the request of a small religious community that no longer wished to operate its house of prayer. There were no pending applications at year’s end. On October 19, the Ministry for Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued guidance allowing houses of prayer continually operating since before 1955 to obtain permits regardless of any failure to comply with modern town planning regulations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report some doctors in public hospitals did not understand or respect their refusal to receive blood transfusions.
On March 20, the Council of State ruled changes introduced to religious instruction in primary and middle schools in 2016 were unconstitutional and contrary to the ECHR. On April 25, the Council of State issued a ruling that changes introduced in 2016 to religious instruction in high schools were also unconstitutional and contrary to the ECHR. The changes directed teachers to supplement religious textbook material, which primarily covers Greek Orthodox doctrine, with material introducing the basic tenets of other religions. The Council of State ruled the new curriculum violated Articles 13 and 16 of the constitution because the classes were mandatory only for Greek Orthodox students; students of other religions could apply for an exemption. The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued revised guidelines in 2017 for religious instruction in public schools, including supplemental materials on the tenets of various religions and the importance of interfaith dialogue. Several complaints regarding the 2017 guidelines were still pending with the Council of State, including one that the course did not adequately cover the needs of Greek Orthodox students, another that the course did not include enough information on non-Orthodox religions, and a third from atheist parents requesting the abolition of the class entirely. The council issued no decisions on these appeals by year’s end.
The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including funding for religious leaders’ salaries, religious and vocational training of clergy, and religious instruction in schools. Greek Orthodox officials stated the government provided this direct support in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments and in exchange for religious property previously expropriated by the state.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing for direct election of muftis by the Muslim minority. The government continued to state government appointment was appropriate because the muftis had judicial powers, albeit now only in cases where both parties proactively request the mufti’s adjudication, and the constitution requires the government to appoint all judges. On August 16, following passage of the law requiring muftis and acting muftis to retire at the same age as other judicial officials – 67 – the government announced the dismissal of the two official muftis in Xanthi and Rodopi regions – age 77 and 81 respectively. The government appointed two acting muftis to replace them. On September 12, the two former muftis issued a statement announcing they would file an appeal to the Council of State and to the European Commission, stating their dismissals violated the religious freedom of the Muslim minority in Thrace.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to criticize government appointment of members entrusted to oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the auqafs, stating the Muslim minority in Thrace should elect these members. Muslim leaders also continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years because of shortage of space contravened Islamic religious law. At least three sites continued to be used unofficially for the burial of Muslim migrants and asylum seekers on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros.
Media reported delays in the construction of a government-funded mosque in Athens, originally slated for completion in 2017. On December 19, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs posted a job vacancy for an imam to serve in this mosque. Applications were due by January 18, 2019. On August 24, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport announced the obligation of 2.6 million euros ($2.98 million) to complete exterior construction and landscaping around the mosque. On October 3, the government published the bylaws of the Athens mosque’s managing committee, determining how to operate the mosque to share space among diverse Muslim communities in the wider region of Attica and how to resolve disagreements on these issues. On September 9, according to YouTube videos and media reports, approximately 200 GD supporters held a protest in front of the mosque objecting to its construction, shouting “whoever does not want Greece and [its] religion should … go to Asia.” In the absence of an official mosque in Athens, central and local government authorities 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 June 26, 29 parliamentarians from ruling SYRIZA party requested the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to stop listing students’ religion on school transcripts, stating doing so violated freedom of conscience and data protection laws because employers requested transcripts from job applicants. The ministry had not responded to this request by year’s end.
NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and the Humanist Union of Greece continued to state some judicial and other authorities did not comply with the country’s legislation and ECtHR judgments on religious oaths by continuing to record witnesses’ and defendants’ religions and not offering a choice between a civil affirmation and a religious oath.
On September 20, the Union of Atheists requested the Council of State remove all icons and religious symbols from the courtroom while hearing its appeal related to religion classes in public schools. On September 21, the Council of State denied the request by a 30-6 majority.
The government continued to fund Catholic religious training and teachers’ salaries in state schools on the islands of Syros and Tinos, trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events and Auschwitz, and Holocaust education training for teachers. The government organized Holocaust-themed contests for high school students. It also supported and organized initiatives promoting religious tolerance, including a one-day seminar on Islam for prison staff guarding Muslim inmates in detention facilities in the northern part of the country. On August 9, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued a decree officially incorporating Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina into the program of students attending Islamic religious schools in Thrace. The students paid for the trip expenses, while the ministry set guidelines on field trip safety and organization. On January 18, Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis announced parliament would fund the creation of a museum space inside the Auschwitz concentration camp commemorating Greek Jews who perished there. Government officials also continued to participate in Holocaust remembrance events around the country.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to state the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternative service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and for those serving in the military (nine months) was discriminatory. On May 14, the Council of State issued a decision in favor of an unbaptized Jehovah’s Witness seeking such alternative service, finding he had supplied sufficient evidence to prove he was a Jehovah’s Witness even though he was not baptized.
On June 8, the head of the main opposition New Democracy Party expelled the Mayor of Argos-Mycenae, Dimitris Kamposos, over a comment targeting the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris. Criticizing Boutaris over his stance on national and LGBT-related issues, Kamposos stated in a television interview, “He gets away with it because he is liked by the Jews,” adding, “We, on the other hand, cannot say what we want because we have never worn the kippah.”
On several occasions, government officials publicly denounced acts of vandalism of Holocaust memorials and Jewish sites around the country.
On December 19, the General Secretariat for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice hosted in Athens the first bilateral dialogue with Israel on fighting anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism. According to from the Israeli embassy in Athens, participants discussed ways to tackle hate speech on social media, methods for conducting criminal investigations, opportunities for training prosecutors and judges, and best practices for government responses.
On February 14, Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis and the local municipal board announced they would erect a monument on the grounds of a local church in honor of 150 local Jewish residents whom Nazis arrested in March 1943 and transported to concentration camps.