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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 European Union.

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 traditions." 5

"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.

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  1. Anthee Carassava, "Greeks debate privacy rights vs. religious identity," Christian Science Monitor, at:
  2. "Identity cards: Frequently asked questions," Privacy International, at:
  3. Patrick Quinn, "Greek Church in ID card hassle," Associated Press, at:
  4. "Greek church continues ID card campaign," BBC News, 2000-JUN-28, at:
  5. "Greece Abolishes Religion from IDs,", at:

Copyright 2000 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-AUG-30
Latest update: 2005-JUL-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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