Greek extremist group's blasphemy protest raises a stir


Arrests after controversial play, Facebook parody, prompt accusations of censorship.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 29/10/12


Members of Greece's extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party celebrate election results in May. Critics say Golden Dawn has pushed police to make arrests under Greece's rarely invoked anti-blasphemy laws. [Reuters]

The arrest of a 27-year-old man in Greece for mocking a long-dead monk revered by many, and a protest against an American play that extremists and religious groups said portrays Jesus and his disciples as gay, have agitated a fervour over Greece's laws prohibiting blasphemy.

With fines up to 3,000 euros and imprisonment up to two years, Greece's blasphemy penalties have rarely been invoked, but critics said police have been pushed by the neo-Nazi and ultra-religious Golden Dawn party to crack down on those it believes offend God and the Greek Orthodox Church.

Recent arrests and protests have brought religion to the forefront in a country that is one of the few in Europe with a state-recognised religion. More than 90 percent of Greeks identify themselves as Greek Orthodox.

"Golden Dawn traded upon the religious feeling and the religious beliefs of some people in order to make noise and gain some more votes trying to present themselves as the protectors of the Christian faith," Alexandros Sakellariou, a member of the Hellenic League for Human Rights, told SETimes.

A Golden Dawn-led protest against the play "Corpus Christi," by American playwright Terrence McNally, and death threats against a Greek cleric who spoke out against the demonstration, have provoked dismay and praise. The Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy condemned the play, but has not released any further statement. Police in June arrested three actors for appearing in it and charged them with blasphemy.

The recent arrest of an unidentified man who used his Facebook page to parody a monk named Elder Paisios as "pastitsio," a creamy Greek dish that resembles lasagna, set off criticism that it was orchestrated by Golden Dawn. Police said they made the arrest after complaints from various parts of the world reached the electronic crimes squad.

Golden Dawn's protests come as Greeks are suffering a crushing economic crisis and the party's anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-austerity, ultra-religious stance has propelled it into third place in polls.

"These people have a political motivation," Emmanuel Perselis, professor of theory and practice of Christian religious education at the University of Athens, told SETimes. "They want to profit on the electorate, which comes from Christian fundamentalist backgrounds."

The party's spokesman, who has had his parliamentary immunity stripped for being implicated in an armed robbery, was not available for comment.

The European Humanist Federation noted that Greece, Ireland and Poland are the only EU countries where blasphemy laws may lead to prosecution, fines and imprisonment, and urged a change in the law.

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"There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one's religious feelings. Churches and religious groups should accept criticism, just as every group in society," the organisation said.

Ari Caratzas, who runs publishing houses in New York and Athens that specialise in religious works, told SETimes that, "While the blasphemy laws are on the books, I was taken aback that they were actually used."

At Parousia, a store in the tourist area of Athens that specializes in icons, the owner Tasos Nioras said the blasphemy protests were "a political mistake" and feared Greeks had forgotten their heritage.

"In the theaters of ancient Greece they could say anything they wanted about the gods," he told SETimes. "You only make it worse when you criticise these things."

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