Persecution isn’t limited to totalitarian regimes or Islamic states. Some Western democracies also make it difficult for Christians, especially evangelicals, to practice their faith openly. In Greece, evangelicals face constant harassment, including fines and jail time, and cannot build their own churches. But some missionaries say a new law could be a “big step forward” for evangelical Christians in the country.
Greek laws favor the Greek Orthodox Church and place restrictions on other religious groups, including the 0.4 percent of the population made up of evangelical Christians. Proselytizing is illegal and breaking that law can result in fines or even a prison sentence, in rare cases. More often the restrictions are used to harass Christians but do not result in formal charges, according to Tasos Ioannidis, president and CEO of AMG International, an evangelical missions agency.
Laws restricting non-Orthodox churches have been on the books since 1938, according to Mission Network News (MNN). In contrast, the Greek Orthodox Church is granted legal privileges like preferential taxation and funding that are not given to other religious groups, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 International Religious Freedom Report: “The Greek Orthodox Church exercised significant social, political, and economic influence, often resulting in the disparagement of other religions, restrictions on their ability to practice their religious beliefs, and discrimination against their members in a variety of political, economic, and social arenas.”
In 2011, a Greek court of appeals upheld Pentecostal evangelist Damavolitis Emmanuel’s conviction for proselytizing, Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) reported. He was sentenced to four months in prison and an €840 fine, but a human rights attorney told World Net Daily he was able to get the jail time suspended and pay only the fine.
In 2013, Greek police closed two Nigerian-run Protestant churches for operating without proper permits. Members of a Bible Baptist Church in Thessaloniki also said police harassed them through detainments and document checks, as well as accusations of proselytizing, according to the State Department.
Ioannidis told MNN building churches is a particular problem other religious groups face. Construction is challenging because they are required to get permits from the government’s Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and from the local bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church. According to Ioannidis, they rarely give permission.
But there is hope that a new law granting legal status to “Bible-believing” churches may provide more freedom for evangelicals to build places of worship and operate freely.
“This new law removes a lot of the barriers that have existed over the years,” Ioannidis told MNN. “It is not perfect, but it’s a big step forward from where Greece has been. We are praying that the law is approved and that implementation goes forward.”