Hope for Greece to Open the Door of Religious Freedom through the Olympic Games

Greece was once an important place that Apostle Paul passed through on his evangelisation journey. The country however, suffers from a lack of religious freedom. Greece is the only European Union (EU) country to ban proselytism in its constitution, and it is the only EU country that has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.

The majority of the 11 million people in Greece (up to 95.2 percent) are recorded as members of the Orthodox Church, with only small numbers belonging to other religions, mainly Old Calendarist Orthodox, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Jews, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, and Jehovah´s Witnesses.

With a dominating Orthodox society, the Orthodox Church enjoys a lot of privileges. Due to historical reasons and long-established tradition, special relationships have been built between the Greek State and the Orthodox Church. According to the present constitution, the Greek-Orthodox dogma is the prevailing religion and the Orthodox Church is self-administered and autocephalous. The government, under the direction of the Ministry of Education and Religion, is responsible for the entire financing of the church.

The Orthodox Church, Judaism and Islam are the only groups considered by the law to be a "legal person of public law". Other religious communities, such as Evangelical Protestants are considered to be "legal persons of private law". This means that religious minority communities, because of their classification as private entities, cannot be corporately represented in court, and cannot possess or inherit property.

The present Constitution does state that all people living within the Greek territory can enjoy "full" protection to practice the religion of their choice. However, the Constitution still prohibits proselytising, which means conversion of faith from one to another despite the European Court of Human Rights judgment. Ambiguous guidelines on the holding rite of worship in public is stipulated.

Under the current laws, "known" religious groups are required to obtain "house of prayer" permits from the Ministry of Education and Religion in order to open places of worship. This permit constitutes the only way in which the state recognises a religion. The Ministry may base its decision to issue permits on the opinion of the local Orthodox bishop, and the police have the right to prosecute religious communities who operate or build places of worship without a permit.

Above all these, the progress in the protection of religious freedom in Greece also depends on other factors. Many expect that the running-up to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games can open a new door of religious freedom for Greece.

Several outreach programmes will be held during the Olympic Games. 'Operation Gideon' is organised by Hellenic Ministries, with the support of Youth With A Mission (YWAM). They have the purpose of surrounding Greece with evangelistic teams on 80 Greek islands to break centuries of spiritual bondage through prayer, literature distribution and proclamation evangelism. Starting from August 13, Advancing the Ministries of the Gospel, or AMG International, will send 17 teams to Athens as part of a massive outreach effort involving various ministries.

YWAM has shared its vision for this outreach through Acts 16:9, "Come over to Macedonia and help us..." After Apostle Paul saw this vision, he left for Macedonia and preached to the gospel to them. At this place, Apostle Paul met Lydia, and the Lord opened her heart in response to Paul’s message. She and her whole family were baptised, the door of Gospel in Europe was thus first opened through her.

Now, the outreach programmes during the Olympic Games may be a golden opportunity to change this country, the only place in the EU religious freedom is suppressed. Once the door is opened at this single last place, a wider road of propagation of the Gospel will be seen.