On 15 February, Dimitras together with his Greek Helsinki Monitor colleague, Andrea Gilbert, were convicted of filing a false complaint against Metropolitan Bishop of Piraeus Seraphim by the Three-Judge Misdemeanors Court of Athens. They were sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for three years. Dimitras and Gilbert have filed an appeal.
On 8 November 2021, the prosecutor filed a case against the Monitor for violation of Article 229(1) and 229(3) of the Greek Penal Code. According to the law:
1. A person who knowingly falsely accuses another person or reports to the authorities that the other person has committed a crime or a disciplinary offence shall be sentenced to at least two years’ imprisonment and a fine.
3. The court at the request of the victim may allow him to publish the decision at the expense of the convicted. This right ceases to exist if the publication is not made within six months from the registration of the final decision in the special book.
On 3 December, a public prosecutor archived the Greek Helsinki Monitor’s complaint reportedly reasoning that the statement published by the Bishop merely constituted a proclamation of the doctrine of the Greek Orthodox Church, and was not anti-Semitic or racist. The Bishop responded by filing a complaint against Dimitras and Gilbert.
On 29 April 2017, Dimitras and Gilbert filed a complaint filed with the Department for Combating Racist Violence (Attica Division) on behalf of the Greek Helsinki Monitor against a Bishop, alleging that he had abused his ecclesiastical office (contrary to Article 196 of the Penal Code) and incited violence or hatred (contrary to Article 1 Law 927/1979) in a statement published on the website of the Diocese of Piraeus the day previously. In their complaint, the Greek Helsinki Monitor argued that the Bishop had referenced well-known anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around “global Jewish domination.” The statement was also condemned by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece as an “anti-Semitic delirium.”
The Metropolitan Bishop of Piraeus Seraphim is known to have espoused anti-Semitic, as well as homophobic, views before; in 2010, he reportedly told a local TV station that Jews had orchestrated the Holocaust and were to blame for Greece’s debilitating debt crisis; in 2015, he attributed new legislation giving same-sex couples expanded civil rights to the “international Zionist monster” controlling the leftist government then in power, and warned that passing such legislation would bring the wrath of God upon them.
Panayote Dimitras, born in Athens in 1953, received his B.A. in Economics from the Athens School of Economics and Business in 1975, as well as a Master in Public Administration (MPA) in 1977 and a Ph.D. in 1979 in Political Economy and Government from Harvard University. An assistant professor of political science in the Athens University of Ecoclines between 1989-1992, he was forced to resign because of his human rights work. He has published in Greek “Political Background, Parties and Elections in Greece” (1991); “In Search of Lost Rights: the Dark Side of the Hellenic Republic” (2007); and “Racist Discrimination in Greece Under UN Scrutiny” (2016).
Dimitras co-founded Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and Minority Rights Group – Greece (MRG-G) in 1992; he has been the Spokesperson of GHM ever since. In 2010, he also co-founded the Humanist Union of Greece (HUG); he has been a member of HUG’s Secretariat ever since. Since 2012 he has been a member of the World Organization against Torture (OMCT)’s General Assembly. Between 2014-2020 he was a member of the Executive Board of the European Humanist Federation (EHF). He is also a member of the Board of the European Implementation Network since 2018. He is a joint administrator of Racist Crimes Watch (https://racistcrimeswatch.wordpress.com), where hate crimes and hate speech are recorded and then submitted to prosecutors: they have led to the pressing of charges in some 150 cases, half of which were referred to trial. He has won scores of cases at the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Committee for Social Rights on discrimination against Roma, ethnic minorities, LGBTI+ persons, and migrants; on religious oath; on violence in the form of torture, ill-treatment, injuries and deaths; on trafficking in human beings; and on excessive length of proceedings. Before domestic courts, two government officials were found guilty of defamation against him.
Dimitras is no stranger to harassment in response to his human rights work. He has faced repeated smear campaigns, threats of violence and judicial harassment in connection with his work for the Greek Helsinki Monitor. In 2008, Dimitras was threatened after challenging anti-Semtic reporting in a far-right newspaper. Dimitras was reportedly accused of being “a wretched traitor of Greece, actively and publicly supporting the existence of a Macedonian minority in this country,” as well as of being “the object of a complaint for treason against the Fatherland.”
In September 2019, Kyriakos Velopoulos, then president of the right-wing populist Elliniki Lisi party (“Greek Solution”), tabled a parliamentary question accusing Panayote Dimitras of acting “against free expression, against democracy” in his capacity of spokesperson of human rights monitor Greek Helsinki Monitor.
A complete briefing on the case compiled by the Greek Helsinki Monitor relating to the case and international human rights law is available here.
Greece is a unitary parliamentary republic on the edge of the Balkan Peninsula, often regarded as the birthplace of democracy in Europe and a catalyst to western civilisation. The country has seen steady economic, social and legal changes in recent years with leftist government attempts towards secularization of the country. However, Greek Orthodox privilege still exists and is still prevalent across the country and religion is still firmly woven into the fabric of major institutions. Financial crisis and the rise of far-right politics have been significant factors in the past several years.
The Constitution, other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 3 of the constitution states that ‘the prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ’, recent governments have proposed for this Article to be amended to one emphasizing ‘religious neutrality’.
Freedom of speech and press are protected under Article 14, ‘every person may express and propagate his thoughts orally, in writing and through the press in compliance with the laws of the State’. However the “blasphemy” law was abolished only in 2019. Suggestions of reintroducing the provision were scrapped following public outcry.
The government financially supports the Orthodox Church; for example, the government pays for the salaries and religious training of clergy, finances the maintenance of Orthodox Church buildings, and exempts from tax Orthodox Church’s revenues from properties it owns.
Whilst state sponsorship of the Greek Orthodox religion is still entrenched, recent leftist governments have taken steps toward disestablishment of the Orthodox church.
The former government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proposed changes to significantly reduce the role of the Orthodox Church in the public sector. The government announced to ‘free up’ 10,000 civil service roles occupied by the clerics of the church, however they would continue to pay the salary of clerics with a subsidy of €200 million annually. The government also proposed to introduce the concept of ‘religious neutrality’ to the Constitution in an attempt to remove privilege from religions. These changes and proposals were highly criticized by religious conservatives who criticized the government for their lack of faith.
Religion was and still is often assumed in Greek society with polls supporting the prevalence of the Eastern Orthodox religion. A 2005 poll revealed that 96.6% of the census were Orthodox Christian and only 2% identified as atheist. However, a more recent poll (2015) showed that this had changed significantly to 81.4% Orthodox Christians and 14.7% non-religious.
Despite a rise in non-religion, the Orthodox faith is still embedded in many activities and traditions of local communities, all the way up to the President of the Republic who, although an atheist, had to take a religious oath prescribed by the Constitution on the assumption of office in 2020. However, since 2019, the choice between making a religious oath or a civil affirmation in criminal proceedings has been abolished; all citizens now make a civil affirmation.
However, religion is still registered in civil registries of births, marriages, civil partnerships, and deaths. The registration of religion in birth certificates is the object of an application communicated to Greece by the EctHR in 2020 (Papanikolaou v. Greece).
Greece is a free country with an open and vigorous parliamentary democracy, according to Freedom House, however “[o]ngoing concerns include corruption, discrimination against immigrants and minorities, and poor conditions for undocumented migrants and refugees.”
The rise of the far-right in recent years is cause for concern and has resulted in harassment and acts of violence or hatred.
In October 2019, humanists protested the harassment through parliamentary procedures of Panayote Dimitras, a human rights activist associated with Greek Helsinki Monitor and Humanist Union of Greece, by the president of a far-right nationalist party.
After a number of high-profile blasphemy cases and international criticism, the “blasphemy” law was abolished in 2019. The ‘blasphemy’ law had been actively used to persecute individuals and groups for portraying, mocking or insulting the Orthodox religion in the form of art or on social media outlets.
Humanists International condemns the fact that they face abusive criminal charges for speaking out against the promotion of racism and hate speech by a religious leader and defending human rights and non-discrimination.
Humanists International calls on the Greek government to quash the conviction against Dimitras and Gilbert immediately and unconditionally.
Humanists International has been monitoring the case of Dimitras and Gilbert, and has published statements in their support.