The Humanist Union of Greece (HUG) considers -and will explain it below- that the Government-proposed constitutional amendments on “religious neutrality” and the Government-Church of Greece agreement in principle on the Church of Greece clergy and mostly contested property have nothing to do with their supposed aim, that is the separation of the Church of Greece from the State.
HUG is also bewildered that usually credible UK media (BBC, The Guardian, The Times) have de facto become the Greek Government’s spin doctors with articles (mis)informing about an alleged move towards secularization.
HUG is finally dismayed by a statement of Humanists UK full of false information on alleged forthcoming secularization in Greece, based on the aforementioned articles by UK media without prior seeking of confirmation from their fellow humanist organization in Greece, HUG. Both HUG and Humanists UK are members of the European Humanist Federation and of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Even after they had been alerted to the misleading character of their statement they did not withdraw it. Thus they appear to deliberately undermine the work of Humanist Union of Greece and of all Greeks striving to achieve real secularization rather some window dressing.
The proposed constitutional amendments
On 2 November 2018, the majority governing coalition partner SYRIZA tabled before Parliament a series of proposed constitutional amendments. They require a double approval by the current parliament and by the next parliament. Two proposed substantial amendments, of Articles 3 and 13 para.5, are related to religious freedom. The proposed amended texts (in italics what will be added compared to the existing texts) are:
The Greek State is religiously neutral. The prevailing religion in Greece is the Orthodox Church, which is inextricably united with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and with every other Orthodox Church and respects the Apostles’ and Ecumenical Synod Rules and the ecclesiastical tradition. The Orthodox Church of Greece is self-ruled and governed according to its Statute, to the Patriarchal Volume of 1850 and to the Synodic Act of 1928. The ecclesiastical regime of Crete and the Dodecanese is not contrary to the above provisions.
The term prevailing religion is not a recognition of an official state religion and does not have any adverse effect on other religions and the enjoyment of the right of religious freedom in general.
(…) 5. No oath is imposed without law, which also defines its form. The swearing-in of state officers and public officials and civil servants takes place through a political oath. In any other case, the person obligated [to take an oath] freely chooses whether to give a political or a religious oath.
SYRIZA therefore proposes to add a sentence on religious neutrality, and an interpretative statement that the reference to prevailing religion is not a recognition of an official state religion and does not have any adverse effect on religious minorities. Additionally, it proposes a mandatory political oath for all public officials and civil servants (and in subsequent articles it offers the exact texts for the corresponding affirmations), but introduces for the first time in the constitution the religious oath for all other oath-taking procedures (e.g. in courts) alongside the political oath.
However, even the Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR), in a 2015 report to the UN HRCtte, stated in relation to the introduction in 2012 of a choice between a political and a religious oath that “the GNCHR is not fully satisfied by this solution. Firstly, choosing a political oath instead of a religious one might lead the jury to form a biased view of the witness. The reason for this is the predominance of the Greek Orthodox Religion in Greek society. Secondly, witnesses often are not even asked whether they would like to choose between a religious and political oath. Consequently, the witness must request it his/herself, thus revealing that he/she most probably is not Greek orthodox. The GNCHR, therefore, recommends that religious oath should be completely replaced by political oath.”
Should that amendment be accepted, it will be impossible in the future to abolish religious oath altogether as HUG and so many other civil society actors plus the official GNCHR advocate. Additionally, the constitutional guarantee to the religious oath is expected to lead to the maintenance of the icons of Christ in all courtrooms and in all offices of all judges or other judicial officials, that runs counter to the supposed religious neutrality.
Additionally, the SYRIZA amendments keep intact the references to the dogmatic and institutional arrangements of the prevailing religion, whereas the equivalent arrangements for the minority religions have no reference in the constitution. It also keeps intact all other religious references in the constitution.
In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity
1. Freedom of religious conscience is inviolable. The enjoyment of civil rights and liberties does not depend on the individual’s religious beliefs.
2. All known religions shall be free and their rites of worship shall be performed unhindered and under the protection of the law. The practice of rites of worship is not allowed to offend public order or the good usages. Proselytism is prohibited.
3. The ministers of all known religions shall be subject to the same supervision by the State and to the same obligations towards it as those of the prevailing religion.
4. No person shall be exempt from discharging his obligations to the State or may refuse to comply with the laws by reason of his religious convictions.
(…) 2. Education constitutes a basic mission for the State and shall aim at the moral, intellectual, professional and physical training of Greeks, the development of national and religious consciousness and at their formation as free and responsible citizens.
The constitution is and will continue to be proclaimed in the name of the Holy Trinity. Education will continue to aim at the development of a national and religious consciousness, which has been interpreted including by Greece’s supreme courts as an official Orthodox Christian consciousness: to be exempted from such religious education, pupils have to declare that they are not Orthodox Christians, in violation of Article 9 of the ECHR: this is currently judged by the ECtHR (Papageorgiou and others v. Greece) and in its observations the SYRIZA government vehemently defends the status quo ante.
On the other hand, Article 13 paras. 1-4 define religious freedom in a way that has been interpreted by many constitutional experts as de facto religious neutrality, although in practice this is not always respected. Henceforth, HUG as well as academics, experts and civil society actors have argued that the proposed introduction of a sentence on religious neutrality in Article 3 does not in effect add anything of substance to religious freedom as defined in Article 13, especially as the mandatory development of de facto Orthodox Christian religious consciousness through education defined in Article 16 cancels the religious neutrality in education. Characteristically, Professor Yannis Ktistaskis (with a successful ECtHR track record) called the proposals “fake neutrality,” while texts by the President of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) Professor Dimitris Christopoulos, the former President of the Hellenic League of Human Rights (HLHR) Professor Kostas Tsitselikis (also with a successful ECtHR track record) and HLHR were published under the title “The devil is in the detail” making clear that there is no separation of Church from State, nor any changes that can satisfy any advocate of religious neutrality in Greece. In another article, Professor Dimitris Christopoulos stated that “having both a “prevailing religion” and “religious neutrality” is silly.”
The Government – Church of Greece preliminary agreement
On 6 November 2018, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Archbishop Ieronymos announced a “historic” Joint Statement that made arrangements for the joint management of disputed church property and for the replacement of the current direct payment by the state of the salaries individually to each member of the 10,000-strong clergy (the largest per capita in Europe) with an annual subsidy of 200 million euros to the Church of Greece for the payment of that clergy’s salaries (as a comparison Former Minister of Education and Cults Nikos Filis -dismissed at the Church of Greece‘s request- said that the German state gives to the Catholic and the Protestant Churches annually 480 million euros). With the latter arrangement, the Government can claim to the international donors that it is removing 10,000 persons from the civil service and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has announced that 10,000 new civil service appointments will be made in 2020. It is obvious that the whole arrangement has a strong clientelist character; let alone that it is introducing a discriminatory element as the clergy of all other religions will not be paid through state subsidies, which also contradicts the alleged “religious neutrality” the Government pretends to introduce.
Fake news by UK media and Humanists UK about the fake neutrality in Greece
All the information above, including the damning public statements by experts, was widely available to the public. Hence, it is at least inexcusable that the UK media and Humanists UK published such fake news on 7 and 8 November 2018.
BBC falsely claimed that the agreement will “bring Greece a step closer to separation of Church and state,... is definitely an important step towards Greece becoming a genuinely secular country.” The Times also falsely saw “a surprise agreement that will separate the state from the powerful Orthodox Church for the first time in centuries… [and] redefine the state as “religiously neutral”. The constitution had long stipulated that the Greek Orthodox faith was the dominant religion in the country.” as if the religiously neutral reference will replace the dominant religion reference; worse they falsely claimed that “The deal will save the Greek Treasury about €200 million a year by stripping some of the country’s 10,000 priests and church staff of their state-funded salaries.” [sic] The Guardian also falsely claimed that “In the biggest move yet towards the 11-million strong nation becoming a fully fledged secular country, officials said the public sector would cease to have any religious role… Progressives have long spoken of the need to separate church and state with the “historic” accord now being seen as key to achieving both.”
Humanists UK though produced the worst statement with the super-fake news title “Greece to separate church and state: a triumph for human rights.” [sic] Only they falsely claimed that “Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras announced plans this week to disestablish the Church of Greece. ” Only they falsely claim that “Tsipras, whose Syriza party was elected on a secularist manifesto in 2015.” Only they falsely claim that “The Prime Minister intends to amend the Constitution of Greece to remove references to the church and define the Greek state as ‘religiously neutral’.” Only they falsely claim that there is a “church’s support for secularisation.” Only they see an Alice-in-the-wonderland situation, that even Government spin doctors would not dare proclaim: “‘It is wonderful to see that as Greece embarks on a period of modernisation and democratic reform, its government is acting on the will of the electorate to create an inclusive, secular constitution for all the people of Greece, regardless of religion or belief. ‘We hope this will serve as a positive example to countries around the world at a time when people are hungry for radical and democratic reforms to outdated institutions.’” The fact that they did not retract the statement after they were provided with the information above, let alone apologize for having misinformed thousand of persons who read and shared their text, may have several interpretations, all of which discredit a NGO with a long very positive record in the UK.