The European Humanist Federation welcomes the withdrawal of the bill reintroducing the crime of blasphemy in Greece

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Posted on the 13/11/19

Earlier in November this year, the Greek Minister of Justice announced a project to reintroduce criminal sanctions for blasphemy. However, on 12 November the Government eventually renounced to its project, following public outcry by large parts of Greek civil society that showed a clear refusal of this criminalization of criticism and dissent.

The EHF pays tribute to the civic opposition that made it possible to prevent this anachronistic proposal from being adopted and welcomes the decision not to reintroduce blasphemy in the criminal code, which was a threat to the country’s great progress in ending criminalisation of blasphemy.

In June 2019, the Greek government repealed the long-standing criminalisation of the “malicious blasphemy of God” and of “the Greek Orthodox Church or any other religion tolerated in Greece”, two blasphemy articles in its Criminal Code. This was a crucial step for freedom of expression in the country as expressed by the European Humanist Federation back then.

The EHF reaffirms its commitment to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise or mock religious dogmas, beliefs and institutions. It recalls that “blasphemy” and “insult to religion” laws contravene freedom of expression and are in violation of the international human rights framework.

Freedom of Thought Report 2019 – Greece and the world – Humanists International

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A report on the human rights of non-religious people warns “the world is divided” on blasphemy and apostasy laws, “with many states still enforcing these laws, and several states actively tightening or introducing new ‘blasphemy’ legislation in the past few years”.

Launching today at the European Parliament in Brussels, The Freedom of Thought Report by Humanists International, now in its eighth annual edition, examines the legal and human rights situation for “humanists, atheists and the non-religious” around the world.

The 2019 edition celebrates the fact that eight countries have actually abolished ‘blasphemy’ laws in the past five years. But it also warns of a growing divide on the issue globally. 69 countries still retain such laws, and their penalties and prosecution are hardening in a number of states. States such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are noted as “perennial” blasphemy prosecutors. Despite the well-publicised release of Christian farm-worker Asia Bibi, the ongoing imprisonment of several accused atheists and many others in Pakistan, as well as extrajudicial violence against both humanists and religious minorities related to blasphemy accusations is condemned.

The Report also highlights a deterioration in other countries. Both Brunei and Mauritania have actually increased the penalties for ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ in the past two years. Brunei’s new 2019 penal code renders blasphemy and apostasy, as well as other hudud crimes such as adultery and homosexuality, punishable by death. Mauritania introduced a mandatory death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy in April 2018. High-profile ‘blasphemy’ prosecutions are cited as cause for concern in Indonesia, as is the backlash against demonstrators protesting forced hijab in Iran, and prosecutions and intercommunal violence related to Hindutva beliefs demonstrates a deteriorating situation in India. Europe does not entirely escape criticism, despite the overall positive trend in the region, with Italy and Spain singled out for prosecutions against artists and protesters in recent years.

Humanists International president Andrew Copson comments:

“Blasphemy and apostasy laws are an injustice in themselves, but they also lend a false legitimacy to those who commit acts of murder and terrorism in their name. As our report notes, when governments prosecute under these laws it only exacerbates the problems of religious extremism. Repealing these laws as per the human rights treaty obligations that nearly all countries are signed up to must be a priority. It will not solve all the various other forms of discrimination against humanists and other religion or belief minorities that our report documents. But it will begin to de-legitimize the religious extremism that threatens so many societies across so much of the planet.”

More information about the Freedom of Thought Report

About Humanists International

Humanists International is the global representative body of the humanist movement, uniting a diversity of non-religious organisations and individuals. We want everyone to live a life of dignity in a world where universal human rights are respected and protected, and where states uphold secularism. We work to build, support and represent the global humanist movement, defending human rights, particularly those of non-religious people, and promoting humanist values world-wide.

The Online Edition and the Key Countries Edition

The Freedom of Thought Report is an online-first publication. The entire report is available for free at fot.humanists.international, with a page for every country in the world, interpretation, and a link to all the boundary condition data.

You can also download the Key Countries Edition 2019 (PDF) which contains the introductory material, as well as an overview of the data, and a small selection of country chapters.

Both on the website and in the Key Countries PDF you will find the Preface by Andrew Copson (President of Humanists International), Foreword by Mohamed Hisham (a victim of non-religious persectuion from Egypt), and Editorial Introduction by Bob Churchill (Editor of the Report).

Repeals of ‘blasphemy’ laws since 2015

The eight countries that have repealed ‘blasphemy’ laws in the past five years are Norway, Iceland, Malta, the Alsace-Moselle region of France, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand and Greece.

In addition, legislation is pending in Ireland, following a referendum in 2018 to remove the requirement for a ‘blasphemy’ law from the constitution.

Overall numbers on blasphemy and apostasy laws

With data provided for every country, the Freedom of Thought Report 2019 records that as of this October: “69 countries outlaw ‘blasphemy’ or criticism of religion under similar laws, 6 of those carrying a death penalty. Meanwhile at least 18 countries outlaw ‘apostasy’ (the mere fact, or announcing of the fact, of leaving or changing religion), 12 of those carrying a death penalty.”

All the applied boundary conditions, summary score and rankings for every country are available as open data via: fot.humanists.international/data.


Greece

Greece is a unitary parliamentary republic on the edge of the Balkan Peninsula, often regarded as the birthplace of democracy in Europe and a catalyst to western civilisation. The country has seen steady economic, social and legal changes in recent years with leftist government attempts towards towards secularisation of the country. However, Greek Orthodox privilege still exists is still prevalent across the country and religion is still firmly woven into the fabric of major institutions. Financial crisis and the rise of far-right politics have been significant factors in the past several years.

Constitution and government

The constitution, other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom of speech and press are protected under Article 14, ‘every person may express and propagate his thoughts orally, in writing and through the press in compliance with the laws of the State’. However the “blasphemy” law was abolished only in 2019. Article 3 of the constitution states that ‘the prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ’, recent governments have proposed for this Article to be amended to one emphasising ‘religious neutrality’
<hri.org/docs/syntagma/artcl25.html#A3>

Orthodox Privilege

The government financially supports the Orthodox Church; for example, the government pays for the salaries and religious training of clergy, finances the maintenance of Orthodox Church buildings, and exempts from tax Orthodox Church’s revenues from properties it owns. However, the recent government has seen changes towards the relationship of state and religion, towards disestablishment.

Whilst state sponsorship of the Greek Orthodox religion is still entrenched, recent leftist governments have taken steps toward disestablishment of the Orthodox church.

The former government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proposed changes to significantly reduce the role of the Orthodox Church in the public sector. The government announced to ‘free up’ 10,000 civil service roles occupied by the clerics of the church, however they would continue to pay the salary of clerics with a subsidy of €200 million annually. The government also proposed to introduce ‘religious neutrality’ in to the constitution. A government spokesperson informed that religious neutrality would not regard religions with greater value than others, thus attempting to remove any kind of ‘privilege’ from religions in the state. These changes and proposals were highly criticised by the religious conservatives who scrutinised the government for their lack of faith.
<secularism.org.uk/news/2018/11/greece-takes-major-step-towards-disestablishment-of-orthodox-church>
<religionnews.com/2019/01/18/greeks-bridle-at-historic-deal-to-split-orthodox-church-from-state/>

Education and children’s rights

Orthodox religious instruction in primary and secondary schools, at government expense, remains mandatory for all students during their 12 years of compulsory education. Although non-Orthodox students may exempt themselves, in practice public schools offer no alternative activity or non-Orthodox religious instruction for these children.

Until 2019, references to the student’s religious affiliation and citizenship were stated on school leaving certificates. As per decisions of the Data Protection Authority and the Supreme Administrative Court, this requirement has been removed. In addition there is no longer a mandatory reference to the non-Orthodox religion of child students who seek exemption from religious education, as they can now invoke reasons of conscience.

Family, Community and Society

Religion was and still is often assumed in Greek society with polls supporting the prevalence of the Eastern Orthodox religion. A 2005 poll revealed that 96.6% of the census were Orthodox Christian and only 2% identified as atheist. However, a more recent poll (2015) showed that this had changed significantly to 81.4% Orthodox Christians and 14.7% non-religious.

Greek atheists report that their previous affiliation with religious identity was forced onto them by family rather than existing from their own genuine beliefs. Despite a rise in non-religion, the Orthodox faith is still embedded in many activities and traditions of local communities. Some atheists claim that they still participate in communions, attend church and partake in other religious activities for the social benefits of bonding with family and friends rather than their beliefs in the religion.
<nsrn.net/2017/01/16/research-atheism-in-greek-society-breaking-the-chain-of-religious-memory-and-the-emergence-of-atheist-identity/1/>
<religiongoingpublic.com/archive/2017/moving-from-traditional-religion-to-atheism-in-greek-society-like-a-ship-distancing-from-the-coast>

There remain mandatory entries on birth certificates for the religion of the parents and the presumed religion of the child.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Greece is a free country with an open and vigorous parliamentary democracy, according to Freedom House, however “Ongoing concerns include corruption, discrimination against immigrants and minorities, and poor conditions for undocumented migrants and refugees.”
<freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/greece>

The rise of the far-right in recent years is cause for concern and has resulted in harassment and acts of violence or hatred.

In October 2019 humanists protested the harassment through parliamentary procedures of Panayote Dimitras, a human rights activist associated with Greek Helsinki Monitor and Humanist Union of Greece, by the president of a far-right nationalist party.
<humanists.international/2019/10/nationalist-party-president-harassing-humanist-activist-in-greece/>

Blasphemy law abolished in 2019

After a number of high-profile blasphemy cases and international criticism, the “blasphemy” law was abolished in 2019.

Article 198 of the Greek Penal Code stated that “1. One who publicly and maliciously and by any means blasphemes God shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years; 2. Anyone, except as described in par.1, who displays publicly with blasphemy a lack of respect for things divine, is punished with up to 3 months in prison.”

Article 199 declared similar provisions against anyone who “blasphemes the Greek Orthodox Church or any other religion tolerable in Greece”, imprisonable for up to two years.

The ‘blasphemy’ law had been actively used to persecute individuals and groups for portraying, mocking or insulting the Orthodox religion in the form of art or on social media outlets (see “Highlighted cases”, below).

Human rights groups including the Humanist Union of Greece campaigned for the abolition of the ‘blasphemy’ law and it was removed from the constitution on 1 July 2019 as part of a package of measures to clean up the criminal code.
<end-blasphemy-laws.org/2019/06/greece-quietly-drops-blasphemy-laws-new-criminal-code/>

Highlighted cases

9 June 2012, three actors in the play “Corpus Christi” were arrested on the charge of blasphemy following a lawsuit filed by Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus. Then, in November, the Athens public prosecutor charged the organizers, producers and cast of the play with blasphemy. If convicted, they could face several months in prison. According to newspaper reports, Bishop Seraphim was accompanied to court by members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
<csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2012/1002/Blasphemy-in-democracy-s-birthplace-Greece-arrests-Facebook-user>

In late September, 2012, a man was arrested in Evia, Greece, on charges of posting “malicious blasphemy and religious insult on the known social networking site, Facebook”. The accused, 27-year-old Phillipos Loizos, had created a Facebook page for “Elder Pastitsios the Pastafarian”, playing on a combination of Elder Paisios, the late Greek-Orthodox monk revered as a prophet by some, and the Greek food pastitsio, a baked pasta dish made of ground beef and béchamel sauce. “Pastafarian” refers to the spoof religion of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, itself an intentional pun on aspects of Creationism. A manipulated image on the Facebook page depicted Elder Pastitsios with a pastitsio where the monk’s face would normally appear. Despite efforts from anti-blasphemy campaigners to abolish the law, Loizos faced the appeals court in 2017 and his sentence was only repealed due to being treated as a long-standing crime of misdemeanour.
<greece.greekreporter.com/2012/11/16/greece-prosecutes-corpus-christi-for-blasphemy/>
<end-blasphemy-laws.org/countries/europe/greece/>

On March 14th, 2013, Greek artist Dionysis Kavalieratos was tried in court on blasphemy charges for three of his Christian-themed cartoons that were displayed in a private Athens art gallery. The gallery owner was a co-defendant. He was acquitted
<onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/greek-artist-acquitted-of-blasphemy-charges/>

EHF statement on extreme right intimidation of Panayote Dimitras

Posted on the 07/10/19

The president himself of a right-wing Greek party, “Elliniki Lisi” (“Greek Solution”, a party member of the ERC European group), Kyriakos Velopoulos, has tabled nothing less than a parliamentary question to the Greek government against EHF board member Panayote Dimitras, accused, in his capacity of spokesperson of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, of  “contractually submitting an avalanche of complaints against members of Parliament, when they express positions different from his own. Greek Solution stands against Panayote Dimitras and his activities against Greeks, against free expression, against democracy.”

Free dissent is the essence of liberal democracy. The European Humanist Federation is appalled at this blatant intimidation of a private citizen, let alone a human rights defender, by the leader of a political party asking a European government to condemn the free exercise of political criticism. Criticising one’s own country policies for violating human rights or the rule of law, demanding the respect and implementation of the highest standards, is the best service citizens can render to their countries. At a time when human rights and the rule of law are threatened by populist politicians throughout our continent, initiatives like this  remind us of a time when totalitarian regimes accused all political dissidents of being “traitors” to their homeland. Today we revere the memory of those citizens for voicing their opposition when almost everybody kept silent.

A victory for Humanists and End Blasphemy Laws Campaign: Greece quietly drops ‘blasphemy’ laws from new criminal code! Also religious oath was abolished!

The Humanist Union of Greece (HUG) said today they welcomed:

“these very important developments and especially that they were not met with any significant opposition. HUG hopes that they will be promptly implemented and can only regret that a week after the adoption of the new Codes by Parliament the service Minister of Interior was sworn in with a religious oath on 11 June!”

endblasphemylaws

Greece quietly drops ‘blasphemy’ laws from new criminal code

Blasphemy law will be abolished in Greece from 1 July 2019, when new criminal law comes into effect.

The change comes as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedures. The two previous articles outlawing ‘blasphemy’ have been dropped. At the same time, oaths of affirmation have been overhauled so that everyone recites the same civil affirmation, as opposed to any religious oath.

While there have been some words of criticism from leaders of the Greek Orthodox church, wider public reaction against the move has been minimal.

Humanists in Greece and internationally had been campaigning against the ‘blasphemy’ law, which was still actively used, sometimes to suppress religious criticism in theatre and the arts, LGBT rights groups, advertising campaigns, and social media users critical of the church or religion in general. The Humanist Union of Greece (HUG) said today they welcomed:

“these very important developments and especially that they were not met with any significant opposition. HUG hopes that they will be promptly implemented and can only regret that a week after the adoption of the new Codes by Parliament the service Minister of Interior was sworn in with a religious oath on 11 June!”

In one of the most famous of ‘blasphemy’ in recent years, a Facebook user Philippos Louizos was dragged through the courts for several years, over an image he made which made a pun on the name of a Greek Orthodox monk. From 2012 he faced the prospect of prison, only for the charges to be dropped in 2017.

 

 

29/03/2019: Grassrootsmobilise Workshop on Religion and education in the ECtHR context: Papageorgiou v. Greece and beyond/Συνάντηση Grassrootsmobilise με θέμα: “Θρησκεία και εκπαίδευση στο πλαίσιο του ΕΔΑΔ: Παπαγεωργίου κατά Ελλάδας και πέρα”

EHF warns U.N. about obstacles to asylum for persecuted non-believers

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Posted on the 14/03/19

On 12 March, the European Humanist Federation took the floor at the United Nations in Geneva and urged the Human Rights Council to take strong action in order to facilitate asylum procedures for non-believers fleeing persecutions worldwide.

Although the UN Refugee Agency and the EU have issued guidelines to help governments dealing with this issue, in many countries, including EU Member States, the situation of non-believer asylum seekers is still very precarious, for various reasons.

First, despite both guidelines making it clear that religion-based asylum claims fully apply to people who hold non-theistic or atheistic beliefs, including those who leave religion (apostates), in several countries (e.g. Germany, the Netherlands or until recently the UK), government officers fail to correctly assess and understand the life-stances and situation of non-believers who seek asylum. Many of them are not aware of the risks that these people (and their relatives) face in their countries of origin and several cases have stressed the inadequacy of administrative questionnaires to assess claimants’ credibility.

Furthermore, where procedures have been improved (e.g. in the UK), it is thanks to the work of Humanist organisations that have provided trainings to government services.

Finally, the threats that target non-believers in their countries of origin (e.g. Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Sudan or Bangladesh – see last version of the Freedom of Thought report) do not stop when non-believers finally reach European countries. Too often, the threats continue in arrival centers, and come from believing migrants. Atheist and humanist asylum seekers are still not free to express safely their views once in Europe. This is the reason why, for instance, the NGO Atheist Refugee Relief in Germany urges the public authorities to provide for separate housing for non-believers.

You can read our full statement below

 


Human Rights Council, 40th session

General Debate Item 4

Geneva

ORAL STATEMENT

European Humanist Federation

 

Thank you Mr President.

 

The European Humanist Federation would like to draw the Council’s attention on an issue that is often politically neglected although it affects a large number of people worldwide.

Many people must leave their country and community after facing persecutions because of the beliefs and the religious views they hold or do not hold: these people are atheists, agnostics, rationalists, humanists, non-believers and free-thinkers.

Religion and beliefs are one of the five grounds on which people can request asylum or international protection. Both the UN Refugee Agency1 and the European Union2 have made it clear in their Guidelines on asylum claims that the concept of religion shall include the holding of non-theistic and atheistic beliefs.

However, in practice, asylum claims based on conversion to atheism and renouncement of religion are not well understood by government officers in Europe. This often leads to asylum denials that endanger non-believers’ life.

Except in countries where training has been provided by humanist organisations like in the UK, assessment procedures fail to understand the life-stance and the situation of non-believers who request asylum in Europe.

Inadequate administrative questionnaires and peer pressure in arrival centers are widespread obstacles that need to be addressed urgently and efficiently.

We therefore urge the Council to strengthen the existing UN Guidelines to improve the implementation of asylum procedures on belief grounds in Europe and beyond. These Guidelines should include the need for training government officers when it comes to “assessing” atheism and non-belief, but also cater for the effective protection of asylum-seekers in arrival centers.

 

Thank you Mr President.

 


 

1. GUIDELINES ON INTERNATIONAL PROTECTION: Religion-Based Refugee Claims under Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, 2004

2. DIRECTIVE 2011/95/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 13 December 2011 on standards for the qualification of third-country nationals or stateless persons as beneficiaries of international protection, for a uniform status for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection, and for the content of the protection granted, article 10