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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ (Greek Orthodoxy) as the prevailing religion; it also provides for the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice. The Government respects this right; however, non-Orthodox groups sometimes face administrative obstacles or encounter legal restrictions on religious practice. The Constitution prohibits proselytizing and stipulates that non-Orthodox rites of worship may not disturb public order or offend moral principles.

The Orthodox Church wields significant political and economic influence. The Ministry of Education and Religion supervises the Church, and the Government provides some financial support by, for example, paying the salaries of clergy, subsidizing their religious training, and financing the construction and maintenance of Orthodox Church buildings.

The Orthodox Church is the only religion in Greece considered by law to be a "legal person of public law." Other religions are considered "legal persons of private law." In practice a primary distinction is that establishment of other religions' houses of prayer is regulated by the general provisions of the Civil Code regarding corporations. For example non-Orthodox churches cannot, as religious entities, own property; the property must belong to a specifically created legal entity rather than to the church itself. In practice this places an additional legal and administrative burden on non-Orthodox religious community organizations, although in most cases this process has been handled routinely.

Two laws from the 1930's require recognized or "known" religious groups to obtain "house of prayer" permits from the Ministry of Education and Religion in order to open houses of worship. By law the Ministry may base its decision to issue permits on the opinion of the local Orthodox bishop. No formal mechanism exists to gain recognition as a known religion, but Ministry officials state that they no longer obtain the opinion of the local Orthodox bishop when considering "house of prayer" permit applications, that no applications have been refused during the period covered by this report, and that none are pending. A tax bill passed in 1997 created, among other things, three new taxes on churches and other nonprofit organizations. Leaders of some non-Orthodox religious groups claimed that all taxes on religious organizations were discriminatory, even those that the Orthodox Church has to pay, since the Government subsidizes the Orthodox Church while other groups are self-supporting.

Approximately 94 to 97 percent of the country's 10 million citizens adhere at least nominally to the Greek Orthodox faith. With the exception of the Muslim community (some of whose rights, privileges, and government obligations thereto are covered by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne), the Government does not keep statistics on the size of religious groups within Greece. Ethnic Greeks account for a sizeable percentage of most non-Orthodox religions. The balance of the population is composed of Muslims (officially estimated at 120,000); Protestants, including evangelicals (who state they are approximately 30,000), Jehovah's Witnesses (50,000), Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Anglicans, Baptists, and nondenominational Christians; Catholics (approximately 50,000); Jews (approximately 5,000); and Scientologists (approximately 7,000). Approximately 300 members of the Baha'i Faith are scattered throughout the country. The majority are Greek citizens of non-Greek ethnicity. The Old Calendarists separated from the Orthodox Church in 1924 and continued to follow the Julian calendar. There are no convincing estimates of their numbers. There is no official or unofficial estimate of atheists.

The majority of noncitizen residents practice religions other than Greek Orthodoxy. The largest of these groups is Albanian (approximately 500,000 legal and illegal). An estimated two-thirds of these persons nominally adhere to Islam.

Several religious denominations reported difficulties in dealing with the authorities on a variety of administrative matters. Privileges and legal prerogatives granted to the Greek Orthodox Church are not extended routinely to other recognized religions. The non-Greek Orthodox churches must make separate and lengthy applications to government authorities on such matters as arranging appointments to meet with Ministry of Education and Religion officials and gaining permission to move places of worship to larger facilities. In contrast, Greek Orthodox officials have an institutionalized link between the church hierarchy and the Ministry that handles administrative matters.

Greek Catholics reside particularly in Athens and on the islands of Tinos, Rhodes, and Syros. Immigrants from the Philippines and Poland also practice Catholicism. The Bishop of Athens heads the Roman Catholic Holy Synod. CARITAS, an order of nuns providing charity services, and the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) also operate in the country. Both orders reported difficulty in renewing their visas during the period covered by this report, but the visas ultimately were renewed; the Government does not have a distinct religious workers' visa category. Legal recognition earlier was denied to the Catholic archdiocese of Athens, but was under positive review and reconsideration as of the end of June 1999.

Protestant groups constitute the second largest religious group after the Greek Orthodox Church. Some groups, such as the evangelicals and Jehovah's Witnesses, consist almost entirely of ethnic Greeks. Other groups, such as the Latter-Day Saints and Anglicans, consist of an approximately equal number of ethnic Greeks and non-Greeks. Non-Greek citizen clergy reported difficulty renewing their visas during the period covered by this report, but these visas eventually were renewed. As part of new obligations under the Schengen Treaty and the Treaty of Amsterdam, all non-European Community citizens face a more restrictive visa and residence regime than they did in the past.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which is still in force, gives Muslims in Western Thrace the right to maintain social and charitable organizations ("wakfs") and provides for the function of muftis to render religious judicial services.

The Muslim population, concentrated in Western Thrace with small communities in Rhodes, Kos, and Athens, is composed mainly of ethnic Turks but also includes Pomacks and Roma. Mosques operate freely in Western Thrace and on the islands of Rhodes and Kos. However, local officials delayed expansion of a mosque in Kimmeria, near Xanthi, for over a year, at one point prosecuting 17 Muslim workmen for ignoring a stop-work order. Under public pressure, officials relented in late 1997 and construction of the mosque was completed in 1998. Its minaret remained unfinished even after the building permit was approved; but the issue is one of local sensitivities rather than religious motivation, and it does not affect the operation of the mosque.

Differences remain within the Muslim community and between segments of the community and the Government over the means of selection of muftis (Islamic judges and religious leaders with limited civic responsibilities). Under a 1990 presidential decree, the Government appointed two muftis and one assistant mufti, all resident in Thrace. The appointments (effective in 1991) were based on the recommendations of a committee of Muslim notables selected

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Revised last: 10-09-1999