Evangelicals Support Pope's Plea For Religious Equality in Greece

ATHENS—Evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders in Greece have backed calls by Pope John Paul II for Greece's minority religious communities to be accorded the same rights and freedoms as the majority Orthodox Church of Greece.

They also urged the Orthodox church — which claims the support of the vast majority of Greece's 10.4 million citizens — to be more open to ecumenism.

“Legally, religious freedom is secure here,” said Antoni Koulouris, secretary-general of the Greek Evangelical Reformed Church. “But the attitude persists that citizens have a duty to be Orthodox, and that belonging to other denominations is unpatriotic and heretical.”

Koulouris was commenting on comments by Pope John Paul in defense of religious freedom. The speech was addressed to Greece's eight Catholic bishops during their visit to Rome in February.

“The Orthodox Church plays a crucial role in political life, influencing policies and laws,” said Koulouris. “As the predominant church, [the Orthodox Church] claims all Greeks as members, even though most are only nominal Christians and only 1 to 2% go [regularly] to church.”

According to a recent statement by the local Catholic Church, ecumenism is “non-existent” in Greece. Many problems had been caused by a “juridical vacuum” in Greek legislation, the statement said.

Among areas of “practical discrimination,” Catholic Archbishop of Athens, Nikolaos Foscolos listed Greece's armed forces, where being Orthodox was the “first requirement” for officers.

“Orthodoxy is the church of the state, so non-Orthodox are considered incompletely Greek,” Archbishop Foscolos said. “Although the constitution guarantees citizens the same juridical status regardless of creed, religious discrimination exists.”

The rights of Catholics in Greece — about 50,000 ethnic Greeks and 150,000 foreign residents — have been a particularly sensitive issue since the Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the Catholic Church enjoyed religious freedom but not legal status. Article 3 of the constitution of Greece declares Orthodoxy the country's “dominant religion.”

In a report in 1998, the human rights-monitoring group, International Helsinki Federation, claimed that 14 communities belonging to the Greek Evangelical Church and Fellowship of Free Evangelical churches, had been accused of operating illegally during 1997.

The report added that the Greek government had overruled attempts by the country's 150,000-strong Muslim community to elect their own religious leaders.

However, Antoni Koulouris said a popular weekly newspaper, Bhema, had apologized to Evangelical Christians in late February after publishing an article which listed their Church as a “sect,” along with Satanists.

Officials at the Church of Greece's synod and at the archbishop's residence in Athens refused to be interviewed.