US Department of State
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship with some restrictions. The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including blasphemy and religious insult, punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. The government continued enforcing the blasphemy laws, leading to the arrests of at least five citizens in four separate cases. The constitution prohibits proselytizing, and no rite of worship may “disturb public order or offend moral principles.” At least 28 different religious communities are officially registered with the government under various laws, and a 2014 law outlines the procedures for other groups to obtain government recognition. Religious groups without legal recognition are able to function but may face administrative difficulties and additional tax burdens. The Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim minority of Thrace and the Catholic Church receive some government benefits not available to other religious communities. A court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community. The government granted a permit for the first time for a polytheistic group to operate a house of prayer. Some members of the Thrace Muslim community opposed the government’s appointment of muftis, advocating that the community elect them. The government amended a series of laws to allow private citizens and municipal authorities to apply for permits to operate crematory facilities for those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial in Greek cemeteries; to allow Muslim students in primary and secondary schools to be absent from school on Islamic religious holidays; and to establish an administrative committee for a mosque in Athens. The law also allowed for the descendants of deceased Greek Jews born in the country prior to May 9, 1945 to obtain Greek citizenship. The government improved the process for mosque modifications in Thrace. Jehovah’s Witnesses said, the government did not approve their requests to be exempted from military service in several instances. The criminal trial of 69 members and supporters of the Golden Dawn (GD) political party, widely considered anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, continued. They were charged with multiple attacks, including several against Muslim migrants, from 2011 to 2014. GD members of parliament (MPs) continued to make anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments. The government continued to fund Holocaust education programs and commemorate Greek Holocaust victims.
Media reports of incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discrimination and hate speech continued, including some directed at immigrants. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidents of discrimination by some private citizens while preaching or when distributing information material in Athens and in other cities. There were reports of vandalism against religious properties, including Holocaust memorials and a Greek Orthodox church. Police launched investigations and made some arrests; however, the prosecutor had not filed charges in these cases by the end of the year.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the minister of education and the secretary general for religious affairs. They confirmed minority communities could apply for and establish houses of worship, learned about government initiatives that affect the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants, and expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric. Embassy officials also engaged the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church and other metropolitans, as well as members of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Bahai, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witness communities to promote religious tolerance and encourage interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored two international exchange participants for a program on minority migrant integration and tolerance. The embassy promoted religious tolerance through the Ambassador’s remarks via social media, including his remarks at the Conference on Religious Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.8 million (July 2017 estimate), of whom it estimates 98 percent are Greek Orthodox, 1.3 percent Muslim, and 0.7 percent other religions. According to a 2015 poll by Kappa Research Firm, a local private research firm, 81.4 percent of the population self-identifies as Greek Orthodox, 2.9 percent identifies with other religious groups, and 14.7 percent is atheist.
Muslims constitute a number of distinct communities including, according to the Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, approximately 100,000-120,000 individuals in Thrace descending from the Muslim minority officially recognized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. According to local religious leaders and migrant activists, approximately 150,000 Muslim immigrants and foreign workers from Southeastern Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa continue to reside mostly in and around Athens, clustered together based on their countries of origin. Additionally the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that approximately 49,000 recently arrived migrants and asylum seekers remained in the country at year’s end – mostly from Muslim-majority countries.
Other religious communities report that their members combined constitute between 3 and 5 percent of the population. These include Old Calendarist Orthodox, atheists and agnostics, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, members of polytheistic Hellenic religions, Scientologists, Bahais, Mormons, Sikhs, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits proselytizing, and no rite of worship may “disturb public order or offend moral principles.” The constitution allows prosecutors to seize publications that offend Christianity or other “known religions.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including blasphemy and religious insult, which are punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. Blasphemy cases may be brought before civil and criminal courts. Development of religious conscience among citizens is listed as one of the goals of state education according to the constitution. Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the Greek government but are not considered to be state officials.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Police statistics for 2016, the most recent year available, showed 84 potentially racially motivated incidents, 24 of which were believed to be linked to the victim’s religion. On September 28, the Ministry of Education published a report on acts against religious sites in 2016. According to the report, there were 209 incidents against Christian sites including vandalism, robberies, and arson attacks. The previous year the ministry recorded 147 such incidents. All targeted Greek Orthodox churches and cemeteries, except one incident against a Catholic site.
The report also recorded five incidents of vandalism against Jewish sites and one against a Muslim site.
The linking of “international Zionism” with alleged plans for the “country’s Islamization,” that was related to the ongoing construction of an official mosque in Athens, continued on ultranationalist blogs. During a May 21 protest, a group of Old Calendarist Orthodox followers, opposing the building of the mosque, chanted anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic slogans such as, “Islam out” and “Resist the plans of Jewish Zionists who want you servants in the world empire of the anti-Christ.”
On May 3, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, in cooperation with the Seat for Jewish Studies at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, presented a study on anti-Semitism in Greece. The study showed that despite the small percentage of Jews in the country (approximately 0.05 percent) vandalism recorded against Jewish monuments and sites was proportionally higher than vandalism directed at other religious groups. The study found more than six out of 10 Greeks held anti-Semitic attitudes. Sixty-five percent of respondents in the study’s questionnaire “agreed” or “absolutely agreed” with the statements “Jews have been using the Holocaust to receive better treatment from the international decision-making centers” and “Israel treats Palestinians exactly like Nazis did the Jews.” When asked whether “Jews enjoy much greater power in the world of business,” more than 92 percent of respondents “agreed” or “absolutely agreed.” According to the findings, 64.3 percent of those surveyed believed that the proposed Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki should be built by private funding, while 72.1 percent of respondents believed a Pontian (Greek-Russian) refugee museum should be built with government funding. The survey also indicated a large percentage of individuals were indifferent to the concept of a Holocaust museum and 11.3 percent opposed the idea altogether. The mayor of Thessaloniki said he was concerned about how to ensure future operating costs, given societal indifference to and rejection of the project.
Some metropolitan bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements and statements against Jehovah’s Witnesses in public letters and on social media, while others said Catholicism was heresy. On June 15, in a letter addressed to Metropolitan of Argolida, the Metropolitan of Gortynia in the Peloponnese stated Orthodox followers believed that Catholicism and ecumenism were heresies and that Christians should stay away from Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The KIS continued to voice concerns about anti-Semitic comments by some journalists in the media and some Greek Orthodox Church leaders. The KIS also reiterated its concerns that political cartoons and images in the media mocked political controversies through the use of Jewish sacred symbols and comparisons to the Holocaust or through drawing parallels among “Jews,” “Zionists,” and “Nazis,” equating the first with the latter. On May 16, the KIS denounced journalist and cartoonist Stathis (Stavropoulos) for his May 10 article published on the news site “enikos.gr.” The article, entitled “In Bloody Ink,” stated it is impossible to criticize Israel because doing so would be interpreted as anti-Semitism. The article included a cartoon depicting Israel killing free opinion.
On an Alpha television channel morning show on January 12, journalist Dimos Verykios stated, “Global finance is concentrated in three centers: they are actually dominating the planet. One center is the banks, the global banking system. Through this banking system, two main centers are ruling the game. One of these centers is the Jewish lobby, powerful, extremely powerful in America and elsewhere! In all big deals, one will meet a Jew! Or a Mason!”
Academics, activists, and journalists stated the Greek Orthodox Church continued to exercise significant social, political, and economic influence. Members of non-Orthodox religious groups reported incidents of societal discrimination, including being told by Orthodox followers that they were “heretics” or “not truly Greek.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported incidents of societal discrimination while preaching or when distributing informational and religious material in Athens and in other cities. In five separate cases, the excommunicated Old Calendarist monk, Father Kleomenis, attacked and completely destroyed Jehovah’s Witnesses’ information carts. Kleomenis’ partners filmed the incidents for later posting on social media. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in response asked for police intervention. Charges were pending but no hearing had taken place by year’s end.
On March 30, the KIS reported vandalism of the Holocaust monument in Arta, western Greece, noting that the incident happened “only a few days after the remembrance events organized by the municipality of Arta for the deportation and extermination of the city’s Jews in the Nazi concentration camps.”
On June 27, an anarchist group called “Nuclear FAI-IRF” set fire to Saint Basil Church in central Athens. In its statement claiming responsibility, the group cited “the sexism that the Church perpetuates, the Church’s opposition to homosexuality, and the fact that Christianity treats bodily satisfaction and sexuality as non-sacred” as reasons for the attack. The group also stated it “deliberately targeted a profitable business, as the Church owns land and untaxed wealth which is hidden behind charities to supposedly promote its humanist profile.” On August 3, anarchists threw paint on the exterior walls of Saint Basil Church and broke the windows of the nearby Zoodochou Pigi Church. There was no government reaction to any of these incidents. The main opposition party, New Democracy, issued a statement accusing the government of treating anarchists in a lenient way.
On July 7, human rights activists reported on social media that unknown perpetrators had vandalized the Athens Holocaust monument by writing with a marker “Hi, my name is death!” On July 11, police reported the arrest of four male individuals for shattering the marble facade of the Holocaust monument in Kavala in the northern part of the country on March 30. By April 5, the city of Kavala had restored the monument. The city of Kavala, government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and various political parties condemned the attack.
On September 15, the media reported on the application filed by a parent in Mytilene, Lesvos, requesting his child be exempted from the teaching of certain chapters of the restructured course of religious teaching in the official curriculum. The parent listed five chapters referring to Judaism and Islam, stating that the content “did not match his family’s religious beliefs” and objecting to the teaching of “prayers from other religious traditions” to his child. According to media, several parents in other schools also filed similar requests, and they returned the course’s new folder and book to the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs as “unacceptable.” On October 23, hundreds of demonstrators, including members of parents and ecclesiastical associations, theologians, clergymen, nuns and monks, gathered outside the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religions to protest against the new way the religious course was taught, arguing it was unconstitutional, anti-Orthodox, and antipedagogical.
On September 24, vandals desecrated a large banner advertising a cultural event in Thessaloniki entitled “Sacred Places” and bearing the symbols of the Jewish star, Muslim crescent, and Christian cross. The banner was spray-painted with the slogan “Jews Out,” and the Jewish star was ripped in half. The perpetrator was not identified by year’s end.
On December 1, unknown vandals stripped the inscriptions from two of the panels on the Athens Holocaust memorial. The secretary general for religious affairs and the city of Athens “’strongly condemned the attack.”’ The city of Athens said it would contribute to the monument’s restoration.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, visiting officials, and embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the minister of education and the secretary general for religious affairs. They discussed access for minority communities to establish houses of worship, and government initiatives that affect the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants. U.S. officials expressed concerns about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric.
On September 7, the Consul General in Thessaloniki visited a new Yazidi Kurd migrant camp in Seres, in which the government segregated the Yazidis from other migrant groups for their protection.
Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including the archbishop and other representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as members of the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Bahai, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witness communities to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and diversity, as well as to express concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric. Through these meetings, the embassy monitored the ability of religious minority groups to freely practice their religion and the extent of societal discrimination against both indigenous religious minorities and newly arrived migrants from religious minorities. The embassy sponsored two participants for a U.S. government exchange program on minority migrant integration and tolerance. The embassy also promoted religious tolerance via social media, using several platforms to promote the Ambassador’s remarks at the Conference on Religious Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East, in which he emphasized tolerance, cultural and religious pluralism, and peaceful coexistence.
The Ambassador met with representatives from the Greek Orthodox Church, including Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki, Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis, Metropolitan Iakovos of Lesvos, Metropolitan Markos of Chios, Metropolitan Dorotheos of Syros, and Deputy Metropolitan of Rhodes Ioannis. In all meetings with religious leaders and other members of the communities, the Ambassador discussed the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in responding to the needs of 49,000 asylum-seekers, mostly from Muslim-majority countries, remaining in Greece. The Ambassador also discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders the importance of religious tolerance and dialogue.
In March an embassy official met with Greek Orthodox and Catholic leaders on the island of Syros to emphasize the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. On August 17, the Ambassador met separately with the local Orthodox Metropolitan and the former Roman Catholic Bishop in Syros, discussing the communities’ peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance.
On July 10, the Ambassador delivered opening remarks on the Holocaust in Greece to 39 public school teachers at a seminar on teaching about the Holocaust. In his remarks he emphasized tolerance. The Ministry of Education, in cooperation with the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies, organized the seminar.
The Ambassador also met with representatives from the Athens and Thessaloniki Jewish communities, and the president and curator of the Jewish Museum in Athens, to discuss preserving Jewish history in Greece, combating anti-Semitism, and other concerns of the community. On January 27, the Ambassador laid a wreath at the Holocaust Monument in Athens in honor of the Day of Commemoration of the Greek-Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust.
The Thessaloniki Consul General participated in Holocaust Memorial ceremonies in Larissa, a wreath-laying in Hortiatis village, the National Day of Remembrance of the Greek Victims of the Holocaust in Thessaloniki, the Memorial Holocaust Walk in Thessaloniki, and a Holocaust Memorial event at the Thessaloniki Synagogue. On April 24, the Thessaloniki Consul General and her staff briefed members of the Jewish community and others about the killing by the Nazis of David Tiano, a Greek staff member of the consulate, and the need to never forget the Holocaust. She highlighted the new Human Rights and Holocaust Memorial Museum to break ground in 2018. In June the Thessaloniki Consul General attended a dinner to honor the longest living Thessalonikian Jew, Heinz Kounio, who survived the concentration camps.
In September the Thessaloniki Consul General attended a panel discussion at an exhibition which highlighted mixed religious communities that have coexisted throughout history. In her remarks, the Consul General highlighted the importance of societal respect of the freedom to worship.
On October 30, the Ambassador delivered introductory remarks for a video message from the special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the Second Athens International Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East. In his introduction, the Ambassador highlighted the role religious freedom plays in combatting instability, human rights abuses, and religious extremism. The special advisor’s videotaped remarks further commented on the importance of protecting religious diversity.