Greece Supports Religious Rights

FOR THE FIRST TIME, the Greek government last year gave Jehovah’s Witnesses permission to use one of the jewels of its sports facilities for a large convention. It is the indoor Olympic Sportshall, which seats some 20,000. This air-conditioned arena is part of the complex that will be used for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Significantly, in 1963 and in 1988, the Witnesses had arranged to use large sporting facilities in Athens for their conventions. Both times, however, the authorities yielded to threats by the Greek Orthodox Church and refused to let the Witnesses use them.

A Different Outcome

In February 2001, the Witnesses applied for use of the Olympic Sportshall—one of the few indoor facilities large enough to accommodate their numbers. But they wondered whether history would repeat itself. As feared, the initial response of the authorities was negative.

Immediately, though, high-ranking officials who have a reputation for being fair-minded and unprejudiced were approached. Would they be willing to uphold the constitutional rights of worship and peaceable assembly? Would they stand up to religious pressure? They did, and a new decision overturned the previous rejection. This opened the way for the Witnesses to schedule their convention at the Sportshall for July 27-29, 2001.

 At the same time, authorities granted permission for the Witnesses to use another government-controlled indoor sporting facility, the Palais de Sport in Thessalonica.

Intense Pressure Fails

As the opening day of the convention in Athens approached, unsettling questions persisted: Would authorities abide by their commitment despite pressure from the Orthodox clergy? And would the Witnesses be able to enjoy their gathering without interference from lawless elements?

The Orthodox Church did not abandon its age-old tactics of trying to exercise its influence to disrupt the convention. TV stations revealed that Orthodox clergymen had demanded that no mention of the convention be made. In the end, however, the efforts of the church proved unsuccessful.

Ironically, the Orthodox Church has accused the Witnesses of being a secretive religion. But it was actually the church that tried to keep the public from learning what was happening inside the Sportshall. Happily, courageous newspersons from the media did not give in to clergy pressure. They provided extensive and fair coverage of the convention.

Moreover, thousands of delegates shared in informing the public about the convention and talking with them about their beliefs. Wherever they went, the delegates were identified by their yellow convention badges. Many people who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses were invited to the convention and responded, swelling the final day’s attendance in the Sportshall to 15,760. On the last two weekends of July, conventions at the Palais de Sport in Thessalonica had a combined attendance of 13,173.

Observers Were Impressed

When an army of 2,604 volunteers—all Jehovah’s Witnesses—swarmed the Sportshall, cleaning, painting, and preparing for the convention, arena managers said: “We came here to see with our own eyes something that has never happened in this place.” One person remarked: “You should use this facility every year in order to give it a complete overhaul.”

Andreas Vardakis, public affairs director of the Sportshall, was impressed. “You people have adorned this facility,” he said. “We do have the personnel to run the place. But your participation was the catalyst that made this convention a success.”

During the convention, after realizing that he didn’t need to send men to control the peaceful crowd, a police director exclaimed: “I have never seen such politeness and order!”

A Convention Highlight

In the concluding talk of the convention, it was announced that the Greek Ministry of National Education and Religions had recognized Jehovah’s Witnesses as “a known religion.” Moreover, the Ministry had given official recognition to the national headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Athens. The government document said in part:

“[The] Christian Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered by the administration as a known religion . . . with all legal consequences resulting therefrom. The said article of the Constitution protects the freedom of worship, the method and means of expression of worship, and free choice concerning the method of administration and organization of each church or religious meeting. This protection clearly extends to the organization premises and facilities of Marousi [the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses as] a sacred and consecrated place, dedicated to the worship of God. Such facilities are called Bethel, i.e., ‘House of God.’”

Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as everyone else in favor of religious freedom, are grateful for these developments. Their prayers are that as a result, people will be able to carry on their Christian lives ‘calmly and quietly, with full godly devotion and seriousness.’—1 Timothy 2:1, 2.

[Pictures on page 10]

Witnesses assemble at the Olympic Sportshall

[Credit Line]

Harry Bilios