In the year 2000, a dispute started in Greece over the
content of government identity cards. All Greeks aged 14 and above must carry
one. Prime Minister Costas Simitis announced
on JUL-17 that the cards would no longer ontain the individual's religion, occupation,
spouse's name, or thumbprint. However, blood type and a description in Latin
characters would be added. The latter will facilitate travel throughout the
A debate started over the religion data. It grew to the
point where one Athens reporter was moved to write: "Greece is
experiencing a profound identity crisis as it wrestles with what it means to
be Greek, fundamental ties between church and state, and how Greek
traditions fit in with the rest of Europe." 1 "About
97 percent of Greece's native-born population is baptized into the Orthodox
Church, which sees itself as the true guardian of Greek identity and
"Many church leaders are deeply suspicious of the government's drive to
make Greece a modern European country. They see it as a threat to the
Christian Orthodox character of the nation and possibly the stirrings of an
eventual separation of church and state in Greece." 5
About 100 countries "have official, compulsory, national
IDs that are used for a variety of purposes. Many developed countries,
however, do not have such a card. Amongst these are the United States,
Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the Nordic countries and Sweden.
Those that do have such a card include Germany, France, Belgium, Greece,
Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain....Greek authorities have been accused of
using data on religious affiliation on its national card to discriminate
against people who are not Greek Orthodox." 2
On 2000-MAY-26, Ecumenical News International (ENI) reported
that leaders of Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and other minority faith
groups in Greece had expressed support for a government decision to scrap
thr religious affiliation
data. They felt that it would help reduce religious
discrimination in the country. Until recently, Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews
were barred from senior government jobs. Non-Orthodox faith groups have
traditionally had difficulty obtaining building permits in the country.
The deletion of the individual's religion was necessary in order to conform with the
European Union's standards on privacy protection and civil rights. However,
the proposed reform has been vigorously opposed by the (Orthodox) Church of
Greece and by many politicians. They feel that adults should be able to
decide whether to include or exclude religious data from their ID cards.
1 Opponents view the matter as a civil rights concern;
they feel that the need to safeguard religious minorities is more important
than the will of the majority. The Church feels that the government is
trying to undermine the role of religion in the country. A spokeswoman for the
[Orthodox] Church of
Greece in Athens told ENI that belonging to the Orthodox Church was "part
of being Greek".
On 2000-JUN, the Church organized two rallies to oppose the
government's action. One was held in mid-June in the northern city of
Thessaloniki. Five thousand demonstrators were expected; 120,000 turned out.
Archbishop Christodoulos, accompanied by 30 bishops, gave an impassioned
anti-government and anti-European speech. He said, in part, "We are first
and foremost Greek and Orthodox, and only secondarily Europeans." The
second rally was on JUN-21 and
involved a half million protestors in Athens. A homemaker and protestor,
Vassiliki Karathanassi, commented: "We've got to fight for our right to
be Christian Orthodox Greeks," she said, waving a plastic flag with one
hand and flashing an icon of the Virgin Mary with the other. "It seems
[that Prime Minister Costas] Simitis is capable of selling everything that
Greece stands for, for the sake of appearing European."
The Church started a petition drive to demonstrate citizens'
degree of opposition to the government's decision. On 2001-AUG-27, Archbishop Christodoulos
released the tally: more than three million Greeks -- 27% of the population
of 11 million -- had signed the petition. The Church demanded that the government conduct
a national referendum to assess the public's opinion on the elimination of
religion status from the ID cards. Archbishop Christodoulos said: "We
call on the government to go forward and hold a free and peaceful referendum
so the people can express their will."
Dimitris Reppas, a spokesperson for the Greek Government denied the
request. "We are not concerned by the number of signatures. This
discussion is at an end for us." He also felt that a referendum is
not an appropriate mechanism when basic human rights are involved.
A poll was conducted in mid-2000 by Eleftherotypia, a daily
newspaper in Athens. They found that 46% of respondents opposed the
elimination of religious data on the ID cards; almost 40% favored it ; 14% were undecided.