Posted on the 18/12/18
Karrar Hamza Al Asfoor is a 31 years old Iraqi activist who was the first person to be granted asylum in Greece because he is an atheist. Back home, he was actively engaged in promoting atheism. This prompted Ismalist groups to threaten him. He fled to Europe in order to find safety and be able to continue his activist work. Karrar is also a representative of Netherlands based Nasawiya feminist organization.
We had the honor to meet him in Brussels and we asked him to tell us a little bit more about himself, his work and how he feels now that he is in Europe.
When you grow up in our society, there is no chance for asking questions or having doubts. Religion surrounds you. It’s everywhere. Losing one’s faith is difficult and scary.
EHF: How did you become an atheist?
When I was four years old, my mother told me about the night journey of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed who traveled through the whole universe on a flying horse. My reaction was that I laughed: already at that young age, I had to conclude that that was a myth. What struck me is how afraid my mother got, as she feared God’s punishment for this lack of respect. I got very scared and started to cry.
Already at that age, I experienced the fact that religion was taboo and there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed even though many questions went unanswered. For instance, how come everyone around me was so sure that the right way to heaven is the one prescribed by Islam, while, in the meantime, there are so many other religions? Were those people wrong? Weren’t they thinking the same about us?
I grew up in a religious family but I was not practicing Islam as such. For me, it was more a spiritual feeling. In 2015 however, I was looking for views about the meaning of life on the internet when I came across a page on Facebook. This page was criticizing religion. As I kept reading, many of the questions from my childhood came back to me. I started critically examining Islam, got agnostic for a few months until I ultimately relinquished my faith completely.
Did this have an impact on your social life?
Iraq has a very patriarchal, religious and tribal society. Living in such a society is exhausting for anyone but in the case of a non-believer, it’s a total nightmare.
I lost my social life. I could not fit into the society and I therefore spent most of my time in my room, alone, in front of the laptop. I built up my own world on social media. I laughed, I cried and I made friends on social media. Most of them had fake identities because being openly atheist in a Muslim society could lead to their murder. I, however, could not stay in the shadow. I decided to be active with my real identity.
I engaged in a number of debates on social media in different atheist Facebook groups. I wanted to contribute to changing society. So I joined these groups and became the admin of 4 of them. Some were public groups, others were closed ones. One of the biggest was called The world of feminism and atheism. It had almost 100 thousand members.
Many atheists are persecuted. Some of them are kicked out of their house, others are beaten or imprisoned and others are killed. Many incidents go undocumented because the honor of the family has to be protected.
That is truly impressive! How does this work in practice?
When you grow up in our society, there is no chance for asking questions or having doubts. Religion surrounds you. It’s everywhere. Losing one’s faith is difficult and scary. So we try to attract people to these groups, engage in debates with them and try to convert them into atheists. The idea is to try and open the eyes of as many people as possible so that one day we can declare a secular state.
Of course, this is not easy; often we end up with insults or being cursed. In these cases, we try shock therapy by openly disrespecting some religious symbols and showing that nothing happens. God’s revenge or punishment is not coming…
You also work on women’s rights. Can you tell us about that?
Women’s situation is horrible. They completely lack rights and protection in Iraq as well as in other countries in the MENA region.
What they think, how they behave or what they wear is not up to them. Many spend their whole life among four walls. They are subject to violence, rape, and honor killings.
Most of the time, there is no criminal or media investigation because respecting the honor of the family is the most important under tribal and religious rule. The family should not suffer public shame.
So with other activists like Dareen Hasan and Worood Zuhair, we try to help as many women as we can. Sadly however, all we manage to achieve is raising awareness because the situation is totally beyond our resources.
When I arrived last year, Kos Solidarity offered me an opportunity to deliver a public speech in front of 80 people. It was the very first time in my life that I criticized Islam in public. It was an awesome feeling. I really can’t describe it. The taste of freedom is so different from anything else. I just wanted to speak after all, and they gave me the chance to do so!
And then, the threats came…
Indeed. I started receiving death threats constantly for both activities. I did not take them very seriously at the beginning but when I joined a gym in my neighborhood and three men came to threaten to kill me if I don’t suspend my social media activism, I got scared. One of them said “we are aware of your activism on Facebook, remove all your groups and pages and keep your atheism for yourself or otherwise, we will cut you in pieces and throw you to the dogs”.
Many atheists are persecuted. Some of them are kicked out of their house, others are beaten or imprisoned and others are killed. Many incidents go undocumented because the honor of the family has to be protected..
So I got home, I was extremely scared. I did not sleep that night as I realized how unfair the situation was. Indeed, no one could help me: even the authorities were part of the system. There is no rule of law, the country is controlled by tribes and Islamic militias. So, I decided to flee.
How did you arrive to Europe and how did the asylum procedure go?
Initially, I escaped to Turkey and from there I took a boat to Greece. It was a terrible experience. I however was optimistic as I knew I was on my way towards a land of freedom where I would be able to say what I want without being in danger.
The asylum procedure was extremely complex but I received help from the EHF, the IHEU, the Greek Humanist Union, the Council of Ex-muslims of Britain, the Atheist Union of Greece and Kos Solidarity. What really helped was that I had proof of my atheism thanks to my activity on social media. For others however, this is impossible as most atheists in Iraq keep their beliefs secret. So when the asylum authorities ask for proof, they can’t provide any.
I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of other refugees. Many of them are Muslim. So, I have to do most of my activity in secret. Therefore, I still have to censor myself in my immediate surroundings, despite having arrived to Europe.
And how is life in Greece now? Are you still engaged in activism?
It is more difficult than I expected. Integrating is difficult. Apart from one time, I have received no support and I can’t find a job.
Housing-wise, it’s very complicated. Back on Kos Island, while I was waiting for my asylum papers, I could not stay at the refugee camp because it was full of Muslims and I was afraid. So I went to a hotel. Now, I am told that since I was not at the refugee camp, I cannot register for housing. I am also in contact with the Solidarity Now organization to apply for housing and join their mini business management course. I have to look for recommendations and contacts for that, else I heard my application might fail. So, for the moment, I depend on money sent to me by my family. But they will not be able to support me forever.
Although Greece is a quite religious country, the situation is incomparable to Middle Eastern countries. When I arrived last year, Kos Solidarity offered me an opportunity to deliver a public speech in front of 80 people. It was the very first time in my life that I criticized Islam in public. It was an awesome feeling. I really can’t describe it. The taste of freedom is so different from anything else. I just wanted to speak after all, and they gave me the chance to do so!
Greek people are very welcoming. People often immediately assume that I am Muslim. I understood this when in restaurants, they inform me about the food containing pork. However, when I tell them that I am an atheist, they understand. In the end, there is no difference: Muslim, Christian or atheist, we are all humans and they are not afraid of me.
And how about the death threats? Did they stop?
No. I still receive death threats on social media. They do not necessarily come only from Iraq though. They come from Arabic-speaking countries or even Arabic-speaking people in Europe or other countries.
At least I am not in the country anymore. The issue however is that I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of other refugees. Many of them are Muslim. So, I have to do most of my activity in secret. Therefore, I still have to censor myself in my immediate surroundings, despite having arrived to Europe.
Of course, I continue being active in my Facebook groups and hope that I will be able to turn many people into atheists. We are however facing a number of issues online. Islamists use Facebook’s Terms of Services to their advantage. First, most of our members understandably use fake identities and this is not in line with Facebook’s rules. So Islamists report our groups or individual accounts and Facebook closes them down.
Furthermore, they also report our posts, groups, accounts and pages as containing hate speech or nudity. Criticizing ideas, religions and ideologies is however not hate speech. We also do not propagate nudity-related content. Some of my friends have to create accounts on daily basis.
Even if sometimes – rarely though – groups are restored, this harassment is extremely exhausting. It strongly hinders our efforts to enlighten people. In the meantime, Islamists have everything from large media corporations and hundreds of satellite channels to uncountable financial resources.
We tried to reach out to Facebook several times in the past but failed because Facebook does not provide any means of direct organizational contact for such specific issues. Also, these reports are regionally processed by their office in Dubai. This can explain why Islamist argumentation works. We are an oppressed minority and until a solution is found, Facebook is part of this oppression.
Posted on the 12/12/18
Poster of the event organised by the European Parliament
On 4 December, the European Parliament organized an event entitled Dialogue seminar with churches and religious communities: Religion and Human Rights within the EU – A shared responsibility.
The event was organized in the framework of the European Parliament’s dialogue with churches and non-confessional organization under Article 17 of the Treaty on the European Union. It was chaired by Mairead McGuiness, Vice-president of the European Parliament in charge of this dialogue.
The event was composed of two panels: the first one focused on “Evaluating the EU’s Framework for defending human rights in the EU” while the second one was dedicated to “Human Rights challenges and solutions in the EU”.
Humanists advocate for secularism as it is the only democratic principle that provides a framework for the effective realization of human rights.
By separating the state from religious organizations and by committing it to full neutrality, secularism ensures that everyone is treated on equal footing. Secularism therefore is by definition a necessary condition for the implementation of fundamental freedoms.
Among the speakers, Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency emphasized that when it comes to human rights, the role of churches is often seen from a negative angle although many positive contributions to the implementation of human rights by faith-based communities exist. He called on efforts to increase religious literacy in public debate in order to better grasp the role of churches and religion in this domain.
Birgit van Hout, Regional Representative for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reminded the audience, among other elements, that Human Rights cannot be subjected to religious norms.
Virginie Rozière, French MEP and co-chair of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics acknowledged the role that religious organisations play in the implementation of certain human rights. She however also mentioned many others where the role of many religious organizations is detrimental.
She reminded the audience about the issues encountered in the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul convention. She mentioned for instance that in Slovakia, religious groups openly campaign against the convention spreading lies about its content and trying to impose a traditionalist vision of society stemming from religious dogma.
Giulio Ercolessi, President of the European Humanist Federation confirmed the analysis of MEP Rozière. He praised religious organizations for having made a long way since much darker times where most of their actions and doctrines were in full contradiction with human rights. He however also warned about continued positions and practices of many churches, including the Catholic Church, that directly undermine and threaten a number of other human rights. These particularly concern the health and safety of women and LGBTI people, end of life dignity and indoctrination at young age.
He also called on EU institutions to show the same determination in standing up for Bangladeshi humanist bloggers stabbed to death by Islamist groups or jailed for “blasphemy offence” as for rightfully helping Asia Bibi (a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for ‘Blasphemy’ and threatened by Islamists) and her relatives to find asylum in Europe.
The EHF is glad that such a debate took place in an event that was initially organized only with religious organizations. Despite the many areas where certain churches are at odds with basic human rights, we rejoice at the contribution they make in putting certain other ones in practice.
We however have to assert firmly that standing for human rights is by no means only a religious virtue. We feel compelled to remind that there cannot be any hierarchy between human rights, that Freedom of Religion or Belief does not supersede any other human rights.
This is why humanists advocate for secularism as it is the only democratic principle that provides a framework for the effective realization of human rights. By separating the state from religious organizations and by committing the state to full neutrality, secularism ensures that everyone is treated on equal footing. Therefore, secularism is by definition a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the implementation of fundamental freedoms.
Στην Πρώτη Γενική Συνέλευση του Ευρωπαϊκού Δικτύου Εφαρμογής (αποφάσεων ΕΔΔΑ) – European Implementation Network (EIN) την 1 Δεκεμβρίου 2018 στο Στρασβούργο εκλέχτηκε το νέο 10μελές ΔΣ του EIN στο οποίο μετέχει και ο Εκπρόσωπος του (μέλους του ΕΙΝ) Ελληνικού Παρατηρητηρίου των Συμφωνιών του Ελσίνκι Παναγιώτης Δημητράς.
Στην παραπάνω φωτογραφια του ΔΣ, στη δεύτερη σειρά Malcolm Langford, Philip Leach, Adam Weiss, Παναγιώτης Δημητράς, Krasimir Kanev, Vladislav Gribincea, Kristina Todorovic και στην πρώτη σειρά Basak Cali, Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, Nigel Warner.
Ο Παναγιώτης Δημητράς είναι επίσης μέλος του Εκτελεστικού Συμβουλίου της Ευρωπαϊκής Ουμανιστικής Ομοσπονδίας – European Humanist Federation (EHF) από το 2014, ως Εκπρόσωπος της Ένωσης Ουμανιστών Ελλάδας (ΕΝΩ.ΟΥΜ.Ε.).
Τέλος, ο Παναγιώτης Δημητράς είναι μέλος της Γενικής Συνέλευσης της Παγκόσμιας Οργάνωσης κατά των Βασανιστηρίων – World Organisation against Torture (OMCT).
Posted on the 06/12/18
The European Humanist Federation and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) presented the Freedom of Thought Report 2018, this year’s edition of the yearly status report prepared by the IHEU.
The report documents the discriminations faced by people around the world because of their non-religious beliefs. It covers every independent country in the world and looks at issues like how freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and association are respected in law and in practice.
The event was hosted by MEPs Sophie In’t Veld and Virginie Rozière who welcomed a panel of speakers stemming from very different horizons. Together, they shed light on the many discriminations that non-believers, free thinkers and humanists face across the world today.
Among the speakers, Bob Churchill, Communications Director at the IHEU and main editor of the report provided an overview of the many persecutions, discriminations death and jail sentences endured by many non-believers in a number of countries. He emphasized the 19 countries in the world that brutally repress the expression of humanist values. He called the attention of the audience on the fact that 6 countries in the world punish apostasy with prison sentences and 12 others 12 with death. He added that 71 countries punish blasphemy, out of which 7 with a death sentence. Moreover, in 34 countries in the world, law is partly or entirely derived from religion and in 30 countries in the world, it is difficult or illegal to run a humanist organization.
Jan Figel, Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the EU, reminded the audience that Freedom of Religion or Belief includes the freedom not to believe or to change one’s religion. He also explained his view that the level of respect for Freedom of Religion or Belief in a country is a test for the level of democracy in general, as FoRB encompasses many fundamentals such as freedom of expression or freedom of assembly. He also emphasized that in his view instead of a confrontative approach with countries violating FoRB, a more encouraging approach should be adopted with those where change is happening.
The highlight of the event however was the testimonies provided by two atheist activists who fled their countries because of death threats from Islamists.
Karrar Hamza Al Asfoor, an Iraqi atheist activist who manages one of the largest atheist Facebook groups of his country told about the doubts he experienced since early childhood about the contradictions of his family’s faith, Islam. He explained that relinquishing his faith and how this cost him his entire social life. He became a known activist managing large atheist, feminist and pro-LGBT Facebook groups in Irak. After having fled to Greece, he is struggling against Islamist attempts to shut down his atheist Facebook groups arguing that the fact that most people in these groups – understandably – use fake identities, violates Facebook’s terms of services. Many groups have already been shut down in this way
His contributions were complemented by Nacer Amari, a Tunisian human rights activist, Co-Founder of United Atheists of Europe and Prometheus Europe. Mr. Amari explained that despite a reputation of being quite secularized Tunisia still has a blasphemy law, there still is a state religion declared in Article 1 of the Constitution and public office can be held only by Muslims. Many other examples exist.
The panel was concluded by Giulio Ercolessi, President of the European Humanist Federation who called for breaking the populist and extremist views that see all those coming to our countries as necessarily opposite and different from us. On the contrary, he emphasized that many who come to Europe appreciate our European open societies, our civic values and our rule of law more than populist politicians.
For more information, please visit the website: https://freethoughtreport.com/
On 6 December, the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee will vote an important report for people who are mistreated, discriminated or persecuted for their beliefs worldwide, writes Giulio Ercolessi. At stake here is whether the EU will step up for everyone whose human rights are violated worldwide, including non-believers.
Giulio Ercolessi is the president of the European Humanist Federation.
It all started in 2016 after strong lobbying by the Catholic Church urging the EU to take a stand against the persecution of Christian minorities in the world. The response was the creation of the position of EU Special Envoy on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU.
Ján Figeľ, the first such Envoy, former Commissioner, Slovak politician and convinced Christian, was appointed by Jean-Claude Juncker at a special ceremony in the Vatican, in presence of Pope Francis. The tone was set.
Two years on, there has been no reporting or evaluation of the work of the Special Envoy. The priorities of the mandate have never been clearly defined despite several requests by MEPs. Tireless efforts of non-confessional organisations to raise awareness about the reality of humanists, atheists and freethinkers persecuted for their beliefs worldwide resulted in more attention being paid to the matter by the Special Envoy, at least in words.
However, at the political level and especially within the European People’s Party, the understanding that the EU cannot only focus on the protection of Christians but has to stand up for the protection of all people discriminated for their beliefs, whether religious or not, is still far from being secured.
This lack of recognition was confirmed during a meeting held on 5 November by Polish EPP (Christian-democrat) MEP Andrzej Grzyb, the rapporteur of a report asking for the strengthening of the Special Envoy’s mandate.
In an offensive and particularly rude speech, one member of the EPP Working Group for Interreligious Dialogue requested that the mandate be limited to the protection of Christian minorities only, insisting on the need to raise Christian values as European ones.
He even questioned the usefulness of discussing these issues with non-believers – “those people who believe in nothing”.
Across Europe and worldwide, humanist, rationalist, atheist, laïque organisations work on the field and with decision-makers to build a better society and make sure that everyone is allowed to believe or not.
They work with their Home Offices, pleading the cause of atheists, humanists and freethinkers at risk in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mauritania or Sudan. They work with migrants and asylum-seekers in Europe, ensuring they are sheltered, fed and treated with dignity.
They work in school with pupils and children, giving them the tools to become responsible and critical-thinking adults. They campaign for non-discrimination and equality, trying to advance women’s and LGBTI’s rights. They offer humanist counselling for people in hospitals and prisons and provide humanist ceremonies for people’s major life steps.
Drafted and endorsed by the EPP group, the Grzyb report, in its original form, excluded all issues related to non-believers and completely ignored the work of non-confessional organisations. It praised the role of churches, religious communities and faith-based organisations in a wide range of areas (peace building, fighting radicalisation and humanitarian work) and invited them to collaborate further with EU institutions.
Now, after fierce discussions, compromises seem to have been found to take into account the persecution of both believers and non-believers and recognize the work performed by humanist organisations worldwide. However, issues do not stop here.
First, given prior experience, one can rightfully have doubts that intentions will be followed by deeds.
For instance, one would expect the same energy in standing up for Bangladeshi humanist bloggers stabbed to death by Islamist groups or jailed for “blasphemy offence” by their own government since 2015 as for helping Asia Bibi (a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for ‘Blasphemy’ and threatened by Islamists) and her relatives to find asylum in Europe.
The latter case was – and we praise that – championed by MEPs Antonio Tajani and Peter van Dalen, the co-chair of the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Second, the report currently discussed in the EP Foreign Affairs Committee foresees an institutionalization of the EU Special Envoy into a Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief serving a multi-year mandate. A Special Representative, who in the mind of the drafters, would have solely spoken up for Christian minorities.
Even if now it seems that other beliefs or non-beliefs will also be included – the compromises still have to be confirmed by the vote on 6 December – many rightfully question why there should be a Special Representative dedicated to this specific human right and not to other ones.
Especially, the mandate of the representative, if this position is to be institutionalised, must in our opinion explicitly include discriminations based on any possible cause for individual non-conformity with religious groups’ pressure and pretensions, including sexual orientation and gender. And what will be the relation between this person and the existing EU Special Representative for Human Rights?
At the European Humanist Federation, we stand for the protection of all human rights. While it will potentially contribute to effectively help certain persecuted people, appointing a Special Representative focusing on only one human right seems to have a lot to do with the intention to voice a political affirmation on the roots of Europe.
Beyond debating the missions of a Special Representative, what is capital is that people persecuted throughout the world for their beliefs, their life stances or their differences systematically find in EU officials a reliable source of effective support, both in words and deeds, whether they are Christian or not.
With the European elections approaching, more than ever, the European Humanist Federation will keep drawing the attention on the imperative need for EU institutions to be fully neutral when it comes to their relationships with confessional and non-confessional preoccupations.
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.