Greece Grapples with Blasphemy

Elder pastitsios facebook page

This is my op-ed that appears in the print edition of the April/May 2013 issue of Free Inquiry magazine.

Nowhere is the European crisis that followed the Wall Street crash of 2008—and especially the subsequent effort to combat it—felt more sharply than in Greece. The country is suffering an economic depression after five years of rapidly declining output with no end in sight as it fails to meet the demands of the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who are since a 2010 bailout its largest creditors. Greece is also one of the largest entry points for immigrants into the EU—many of them asylum seekers—with the result that an estimated 10 percent of the population are not citizens and are widely portrayed in the local media as dangerous criminals.

This toxic combination of economic depression and a marginalized and scapegoated minority population has created fertile ground for the growth of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Golden Dawn currently polls upward of 10 percent and was able to win eighteen seats in the most recent parliamentary elections this past June. At the same time, the two formerly dominant political parties, New Democracy (center Right) and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK, center Left), have dramatically declined. The main social democratic political force (polling closely at first or second place with the ruling New Democracy) is SYRIZA, which until recently was a coalition of radical Left parties and has now emerged as the main opposition party.

As any student of European history knows, a fractured political environment that includes organized fascists, a large outsider population, and widespread hopelessness does not augur well.

That brings us to blasphemy. The Greek penal code contains two provisions making blasphemy a criminal offense, with a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years. Although the provisions have rarely been invoked in recent years, under the law all that is required for prosecution is for a complaint to be filed, after which a district attorney may act. Legal experts and human-rights advocates have long protested these anachronisms, but the Orthodox Church of Greece has exercised enough influence that the laws are still on the books. During their years in power, neither PASOK nor the New Democracy party was willing to take a stand that would be seen as opposing the church. And neither wanted to publicly challenge the commonly held notion that being Orthodox is a de facto requirement for being Greek.

However, as a result of the current political crisis, the long-standing tensions between Greece’s secular and religious factions are becoming more public—and their voices more strident—as both SYRIZA and Golden Dawn seek to stake new ground and position themselves accordingly. Complete church-state separation is a long-standing part of SYRIZA’s platform. In the past, the party’s MPs have walked out in protest during the customary swearing in led by the Orthodox archbishop at the start of each new parliamentary session. In recent months, however, and for no discernible political gain, several leading Members of Parliament (MPs), including leader Alexis Tsipras, have occasionally made comments that vary from or in some cases even contradict official policy—to the consternation of longtime party activists.

Golden Dawn’s position is not straightforward. Party members have been accused in numerous beatings of immigrants and gays. Golden Dawn expresses open hostility toward both groups, primarily immigrants, in its rhetoric. Leadership within the Orthodox Church of Greece is not generally supportive of Golden Dawn, though there are high-profile exceptions. But the church’s highest body, the Holy Synod, has not condemned the party either. Both the party’s founding documents and various speeches by its current leader, MP Nikos Michaloliakos, contain passages sympathetic to paganism and hostile toward Orthodoxy. Another Golden Dawn MP, Giorgos Germenis, is the bassist for Naer Mataron, a black-metal band whose songs often feature Satanist lyrics. On the other hand, Golden Dawn MP Christos Pappas is an enthusiastic supporter of the Orthodox Church. His father was a close advisor to George Papadopoulos, the Far-Right nationalistic dictator of Greece whose regime was steeped in Orthordox imagery.

Any effort to repeal Greece’s blasphemy laws would require an act of the Greek parliament. A 2010 opinion poll showed that 84 percent of Greeks would support higher taxes being paid by the church while 60 percent (and even 47 percent of church-goers) are in favor of church-state separation, according to a 2008 poll. In the current environment, it is unclear where the political will to undertake such a reform might come from. But in recent months, there have been two high-profile prosecutions for blasphemy. How they play out may shape not only Greece’s church-state separation debate but the broader political and cultural landscape for years to come.

Corpus Christi

The first case involves Corpus Christi, a play that depicts Jesus and the apostles as modern-day gay men living in Corpus Christi, Texas. The play has always been controversial; its 1998 premiere in New York City was delayed after weeks of protests, bomb threats, and death threats against the playwright. Bill Donohue’s Catholic League referred to it at the time as “Gay Hate Speech.”

A Greek version of the play, directed by the Greek-Albanian Laertis Vasiliou, was scheduled to premiere in June 2012. But on the first Saturday of its planned run, police abruptly arrested the play’s three main actors on charges of blasphemy, causing a delay in the start of the performance. The Greek Orthodox Holy Synod denied involvement in the legal action but reiterated its earlier call to protest the production.

Performances of Corpus Christi were postponed until October 11. That evening, protesters blockaded the entrance, threw stones into the open-air courtyard, and assaulted a journalist. The opening performance was delayed by several hours for the few dozen people who had managed to get inside the theater. The approximately equal contingent of counterprotesters included members of the Greek Atheist Union, artists, and MPs from SYRIZA and its offshoot and ruling-coalition junior partner, Democratic Left. The counterprotestors were unable to enter the theater because protesters had glued the lock shut. Vasiliou described the scene to the BBC’s Paul Mason as “the Greek Kristallnacht.” The government condemned the violent protests, as did every political party except Golden Dawn.

The protests were organized by two groups that voiced objection to both the content of the play and the director’s Albanian heritage. The most persistent complaints came from reactionary autonomous Orthodox sects. They are often referred to as “Old Calendarists” because of their refusal to abandon the Julian calendar, and they are not always accepted by the official church. Many of these groups are also intensely nationalistic, believing in the prophesied return to grandeur of the Byzantine Empire, among other highly unlikely events. The other group behind the protests was Golden Dawn.

On October 12, several Golden Dawn MPs escorted Metropolitan Serafeim, the Orthodox bishop of Piraeus, to a police station, where he pressed new blasphemy charges against the play’s actors and director. On November 1, the play’s director and producer issued a joint announcement that they were cancelling future performances due to the continued protests by the reactionary Orthodox. On November 16, the Athens District Attorney announced that a blasphemy prosecution in this matter was proceeding. A court date is not yet set.

‘Elder Pastitsios’

On Friday, September 21, 2012, in the village of Psahna in the Evia Prefecture of Greece, the Police Electronic Crimes Unit arrested twenty-seven-year-old atheist Philippos Loizos on charges of malicious blasphemy and offense against religion. The arrest came about after Facebook told Greek authorities that Loizos was the administrator of a satirical Facebook page for “Elder Pastitsios.” The page was said to have attracted over one hundred thousand complaints, including some death threats. The news of Loizos’s arrest created worldwide interest in the case and became the second major Greek blasphemy controversy of 2012.

The Facebook page features a fictional character named Elder Pastitsios, who is based on a well-known deceased Greek Orthodox monk. Elder Paisios is believed by many Orthodox Greeks to have performed miracles and delivered prophecies, both during his life and after his death in 1994. His place of burial in Northern Greece is a frequent destination for believers seeking miracles, and devotional books with stories about his teachings and prophecies are quite popular. On the controversial Facebook page, Paisios’s name and face have been replaced with “Pastitsios,” a Greek pasta-and-bechamel dish.

Bypassing the charge of malicious blasphemy, the district attorney has announced that he will prosecute Loizos only on the charge of offense against religion, which carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment. Prosecutions under the statute have been very rare in recent years, and it is not expected that Loizos will receive any jail time. A trial date has not yet been set.

On September 17, four days before Loizos was arrested, Golden Dawn MP Christos Pappas had brought the Elder Pastitsios page to the attention of the justice minister, demanding in an official query into why the issue was not being addressed. The police claimed that they had already concluded their investigation before the question was raised in Parliament. Following the announcement of Loizos’s arrest, SYRIZA strongly denounced the arrest. The Democratic Left and the Greek Communist parties did the same. PASOK issued a more tepid response, opposing Loizos’s arrest but affirming the need to “protect religious and national identity.” For its part, Golden Dawn lauded his arrest, boasting that their MP’s question had “mobilized the government into taking action.”

According to Loizos, he had previously angered many in the Greek Orthodox leadership when he created a false story of a posthumous miracle by Elder Paisios, which he submitted to various Orthodox and Far-Right blogs the previous July. The false story told of a teenage drug addict in a coma after a car accident who experienced a miraculous recovery after his mother placed dirt from Elder Paisios’s grave in a talisman under her son’s pillow. The tale was widely and uncritically reproduced, appearing on many online sites and even in a Far-Right newspaper. Loizos then revealed the hoax, after which his Facebook page grew greatly in popularity and in the number of hostile comments received—in marked contrast to the year before, when Loizos had posted similar satirical content without incident.

In an interview after his arrest, Loizos stated that he had acted in part to expose the gullibility of the faithful but primarily to show the poor fact-checking done by conservative news sites. Asked whether he thought his Facebook page was blasphemous, he said he didn’t believe it was, because the target of his satire was a deceased monk who has not been canonized by the official church. (Indeed, much skepticism about Paisios’s alleged miracles has been expressed by Orthodox faithful wary of the Elder’s commercialization.) Loizos reiterated that even if his content was blasphemous, it should be his right to publish it. In his first interview following his arrest, Loizos stated that he planned to focus his future activism on the repeal of Greece’s blasphemy laws, even as he continues to publish new hoaxes.

Given that these two cases have yet to see a courtroom, there will certainly be future legal developments. With regard to the political ramifications, Golden Dawn does not seem credibly poised to court the reactionary and conservative Orthodox communities that have traditionally been on the front lines of maintaining the incestuous state-church status quo. On the other hand, for the first time it appears to be the case that a progressive political party that is a contender for national power in the near future has taken public positions against the blasphemy laws and seems to be openly siding with the defendants. It is to be hoped that SYRIZA will continue to be supportive as the party’s popularity increases and it potentially assumes power.