Some government measures continued to affect the activities and practices of minority religious groups. The government provided tax exemptions and some funding for activities related to the three groups historically recognized as official religious legal entities under long standing law. Other groups recognized as religious legal entities and known religions received tax exemptions, and sometimes assistance in other areas. Some religious groups said that ministerial decisions in September and October easing capital control provisions for the Greek Orthodox Church Archdiocese and metropolitanates and the Catholic Church were discriminatory. The government promoted interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance in education and via multilateral engagement.
Two Old Calendarist Orthodox Christian groups and one Pentecostal group acquired status as religious legal entities through the courts during the year. Courts rejected an application submitted by a polytheistic Hellenic group on the grounds that the official name used by the group (“Hellenic National Religion”) was not descriptive of the group’s identity and could be mistaken as representing an official religious affiliation of the Greek nation.
During the year, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs issued seven house of prayer permits. At the end of year, one permit was at the final stage awaiting ministerial signature, with an estimated 30 additional applications pending processing. Some religious groups reiterated complaints from previous years that the house of prayer permit process administratively constrained freedom of religion.
Religious groups that did not have legal status and had never received house of prayer permits, including Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, and polytheistic Hellenic groups, were only able to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by those religious groups.
The government continued to provide public space free of charge to some groups of Muslims whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions.
A real estate corporation established by law in which the state and the Greek Orthodox Church of Athens each held a 50 percent stake managed the real estate assets of the Church via a 99-year lease and split revenues between the Church and state. The corporation was administered by a five-member board, including representatives from the finance and education ministries.
Muslim leaders continued to criticize the absence of a mosque that the government planned to finance in Athens, noting that Athens was the last EU capital without an official mosque. The government licensed two Islamic houses of prayer during the year. Muslim leaders also criticized the lack of Muslim cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating that this obliged Muslims to travel to Thrace for Islamic burials. Additionally, Muslim leaders said municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years due to lack of available land contravened Islamic religious law. On October 6, the Council of State considered an appeal submitted by 111 citizens requesting the tendering process for the construction of a government-financed mosque in Athens be ruled unconstitutional due to environmental protection and separation of powers considerations. The court’s decision remained pending.
The Orthodox Church received direct support from the government, including payment of salaries, religious training for clergy, and funding for religious instruction in schools. It maintained an institutionalized link to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, which continued to set provisions for retirement of Orthodox monks and monitor vocational training for Orthodox clergy. The government provided funding for the Muslim minority in Thrace to support teachers of Islam in state schools and the salaries of the three official muftis and some imams. The government funded awareness raising activities and training trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events as well as the training of school teachers on Holocaust education.
On January 23, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs issued a circular that effectively added an additional administrative requirement for the exemption of Greek Orthodox students from religious classes in schools, stating the requirement was in accord with a 2012 court decision issued in Chania, Crete. In order to obtain an exemption, parents (or adult students on their own behalf) needed to attest the student was not a Greek Orthodox believer, subject to review by the school’s administration. In August the national Data Protection Authority (DPA) referred the ministerial circular to its plenary session for review. According to the DPA, parents (for students) or adult students should be able to request exemption from religious instruction without any further explanation. The decision of the DPA plenary session remained pending.
Members of the Thrace Muslim minority continued to press for direct election of muftis and imams. In response, the government stated the practice of government appointment was appropriate because the muftis had judicial powers and the government appointed all judges. Observers said the ability of courts in Thrace to provide judicial oversight of muftis’ decisions was limited by lack of translation of most of sharia into Greek and lack of familiarity with sharia in general. Some leaders of the recognized Muslim minority criticized the absence of bilingual kindergartens in Thrace. They also continued to criticize the appointment, rather than election, of members of the Muslim minority in Thrace entrusted with the administration of the awqafs.
The government continued to maintain that Muslims who were not part of the recognized minority created by the Treaty of Lausanne were not covered by that treaty and therefore did not have the rights provided under it.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations stated the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternate service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and for those serving in the military (nine months) was discriminatory.
On September 30, human rights activists, including members of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Humanist Union of Greece reiterated their position that courts did not always enforce the right to take an alternate, secular oath.
The Central Board of Jewish Communities (KIS) expressed concern about anti-Semitic attitudes among representatives of a number of political parties, including the defense minister appointed in January, and about political cartoons and images in mainstream media drawing parallels between financial negotiations with Greece’s creditors and the Holocaust. On September 23, the deputy minister of infrastructure, transport, and networks resigned on the same day of his appointment following media controversy over anti-Semitic remarks previously expressed on his social media accounts.
On January 12, the secretary general for religious affairs issued a press release explaining in detail “the legal status and the taxation of the Greek Jewish communities and institutions” in response to anti-Semitic views expressed in the Greek parliament, the media, and social media, portraying Greek Jews as avoiding taxation.
The mayor of the city of Kavala postponed for three weeks the unveiling of a monument honoring the memory of Kavala Jews who perished in the Holocaust, citing “aesthetic reasons,” saying she had not been shown the commemorative plaque to be used. The KIS stated local authorities objected to the Star of David on the monument. The main governing party, opposition parties in parliament, the secretary general for religious affairs, and Jewish groups criticized the mayor’s decision. The mayor subsequently stated she made errors in the way the matter had been handled, and the unveiling was held June 7, with no changes to the monument.
The trial of 69 far-right Golden Dawn (GD) party members and supporters, including 18 of its current and former MPs, for criminal offenses including running a criminal enterprise, began April 20 and was ongoing at year’s end. The party’s weekly paper continued publishing anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic comments.
In June media reported a Thessaloniki court tried an alleged GD supporter in connection with vandalism of the local Jewish cemetery in 2010, finding him guilty of gun possession and sentencing him to eight months in prison, suspended for three years. A second perpetrator was sentenced to 15 months in prison without the right to appeal. Two minor accomplices were referred to juvenile court.
Following the imposition of nationwide capital controls on June 28, the Ministry of Finance issued a decision on September 28 allowing for larger amounts of cash withdrawals for the Archdiocese of Athens and the metropolitanates of the Greek Orthodox Church. The decision was revised on October 26, to include the same exemptions for the Catholic Church. Leaders of other religious groups stated these exemptions were discriminatory against their own charitable functions.
On October 18-20, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized an international conference on religious and cultural pluralism and peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, bringing together a broad range of domestic and international political and religious leaders, as well as academics and civil society representatives. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs co-sponsored a training program for the “continuous education of theologians and Islamic teachers in Thrace on issues of religion, religious diversity, and intercultural religious education” implemented by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The program provided 460 hours of training to 66 Christian theologians, 84 Quran teachers, and 21 trainers from three universities. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs also supported an international scientific congress, in Kavala October 10-11, attended by Christian theologians and Islamic teachers on “intercultural religious education and Islamic studies; challenges and perspectives in Greece and in Europe.”
The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki re-established a chair in Jewish Studies at the university’s School of Philosophy and the Department of Philology, offering two courses for the 2015-2016 academic term. The decision followed a 2014 agreement between the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki and the university.
On April 28, the National Commission for Human Rights and the Center for Intercultural Research and Pedagogical Intervention of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens distributed a handbook for teachers on combatting intolerance and discrimination toward Muslims.
In January the foreign ministry issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, paying homage to the thousands of Greek Jews killed by the Nazis, and condemning anti-Semitism, Nazism activities, and Holocaust denial.
At a January 27 memorial event in Larisa, Thessaly, organized by the local government and the Jewish community to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, local officials made statements condemning anti-Semitism.