Greece, racism and the church

By Economist

A LONG-AWAITED bill whose stated aim is to combat racism has been limping its way through the Greek Parliament, despite several bishops from the national church denouncing it as "catastrophic" while some liberal observers say it does not go far enough.

In its latest iteration the bill would: impose fines and a ban on state funding for parties or groups that promote racism; punish "racist acts" with up to three years in jail; and lay down a similar penalty for "praising or denying the significance of genocide, crimes against humanity, the holocaust or Nazism" in a way which could provoke racial hatred or violence.

In a country where up to 10% of the vote goes to the ultra-nationalists of the Golden Dawn party—whose leadership is facing prosecution—it will take more than a law to stamp out either racist attitudes or acts of violence against immigrants and other vulnerable groups. But human-rights campaigners around the world have welcomed the bill as a step in the right direction.

And for exactly that reason, Greece's political and religious right has denounced the bill as a measure imposed under foreign pressure. In particular, they have singled out the fact that denying Hitler's Holocaust against the Jews (which is a common enough sentiment on Greece's hard-right fringe) is being made a crime, but no such penalty is laid down for those who deny the suffering of ethnic Greeks in Anatolia, and in particular in the Black Sea region, during and after the first world war. The Pontic Greek lobby, representing Greeks whose forebears came from the northeast of present-day Turkey, has been especially vociferous in denouncing the bill.

Some negative reactions have come from unexpected quarters. Bishop Nikolaos of Mesogaias—a former NASA scientist whose personal horizons are broader than most of the Greek episcopate—denounced the bill because instead of merely curbing racial hatred, the bill also contained "the new and suspect word" homophobia.

But this week, the church's ruling Holy Synod issued a statement about the bill which surprised many with its relative moderation. It expressed agreement with the spirit of the bill and insisted that the church itself was not racist; on the contrary it was "helping and succouring thousands of legal and illegal immigrants, regardless of their religious beliefs and racial origins, even now in the middle of an economic crisis."

The synod went on to urge, in fairly mild language, that in the section about holocaust denial, a reference be added to the "genocide" suffered by the Greeks of Anatolia and the Black Sea. The government has already indicated that something like that may happen.

To many observers it sounded as though the church had resolved to play the "good citizen" to avoid rocking the national boat any further at a time when economic austerity is continuing to bite hard. But as one disappointed church-watcher said, the statement failed to say anything bold that might discourage racist or homophobic acts by people who claim to be acting in the name of Christianity.

Meanwhile, the idea of making an ever-longer list of holocausts whose existence cannot be questioned might seem like a good one—and an appropriate way of commemorating holocaust victims. But The Economist has always come down against criminalising the denial of holocausts, including the one perpetrated by Hitler; it has taken the view that ridicule and counter argument are a better way of dealing with those who defend the indefensible.

In any case, while the church's position on genocide and the anti-racism law has grabbed local headlines, it may well be something else that was said by the church this week  will prove more important in the light of history. The synod appealed to the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, to get Greece exempted from the counter-sanctions which Russia has imposed on the European Union—so that Greek exports can continue flowing to Russia. It won't happen: neither the Greek nor the Russian church has any remit over diplomacy or commerce, of course. But the synod's gesture was an expression of the unhappiness felt by at least part of the Greek public over being forced to take the EU's side in a standoff with Russia. With its strong historic and religious ties to Russia, Greece was a maverick player in the old cold war, and something similar may happen in this new cold war.