WARSAW, Poland—A top human rights organization has accused Greece of violating the rights of minority Catholics, following a series of international court judgments condemning its religious laws.
“Legal guarantees of religious freedom remain insufficient in Greece,” the International Helsinki Federation noted in its 1998 annual report.
“Due to the privileged status of the Orthodox Church, other religious communities are relegated to a disadvantaged status. The Catholic Church, under Greek law, is not a juridical entity because Greek courts refuse to recognize it.”
The Federation, which has 34 national rights-monitoring committees in Europe and North America, said Greek legislation guaranteed freedom of worship only to “known” religions, without specifying. It added that the Catholic and Protestant Churches had been “recognized in practice,” but continued to face “various forms of State discrimination.”
Article 3 of the constitution of Greece, a European Union and NATO member-state, declares Orthodoxy the country's “dominant religion,” and prohibits Bible translations without “prior consent” from the Orthodox Church, which nominally comprises 97% of the population of 10 million.
In December 1997, the European Court of Human Rights said the denial of equal rights to Catholics had violated the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights, which sets out binding norms for 40 states belonging to the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe.
The Court was responding to an appeal by Bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis, the acting Catholic Bishop of Crete, after a 1987 incident in which local residents demolished a wall belonging to the Thirteenth Century Holy Virgin Cathedral at Canea.
Although the island diocese won a court order for damages, its claim was overturned by Greece's Supreme Court, which decreed that the Catholic Church had no legal personhood and was not entitled to bring a court case.
In its ruling, the European Court said Greece had violated Article 6 of the 1950 Convention, giving all citizens the right to a court hearing, as well as Article 14 which bars “discrimination on any ground.” It added that the Greek Supreme Court judgment had risked invalidating all purchases and transactions by Catholic parishes and dioceses in the country.
The case was the fourth European Court condemnation of Greece's religious laws.
In three separate judgments in 1996 and 1997, it also declared the country guilty of violating the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses, and said it had observed “a clear tendency on the part of administrative and ecclesiastical authorities to use current provisions to restrict the activities of faiths outside the Orthodox Church.”
In its report, the Helsinki Federation said the refusal of Greek courts to recognize the Catholic Church as a juridical entity would continue to have “adverse effects” on the Church's property rights and other freedoms.
Although the Church could apply for registration as a civic association, the Federation pointed out, this would give the Greek state control over its activities, as well as the right to dissolve it.
Among other examples of Greek discrimination, the Federation said 14 evangelical churches, including a century-old parish in Thessaloniki, had been accused of operating illegally without official licenses in 1997.
It added that a German-language teacher had been charged with “proselytism” at the instigation of an Orthodox bishop, after she referred to “heterodox dogmas” during a lesson.
The report said the Greek government had overruled attempts by the country's Islamic minority to elect its own religious leaders, and had secured six separate convictions against the Mufti of Xanthi for “pretense of authority.”
A Federation spokesperson, Paula Tscherne-Lempiainen, said the Greek case illustrated a worsening problem of religious rights violations in Western Europe, where several other countries had drafted laws to strengthen “traditional religions” at the cost of smaller denominations.
“Because of our preoccupation with Eastern Europe, we tend not to notice the similar trends occurring in some European Union countries,” TscherneLempiainen told the Register.
“The past two years have witnessed a tightening of legal measures against new religious groups. We should be taking this problem much more seriously.”
The 1950 European Convention of Human Rights, signed a year after the Council of Europe's creation, has been ratified by all member-states except Croatia, and is widely seen as the most effective human rights instrument on the international scene. (Jonathan Luxmoore)