When Benghazi, Islamabad and capitals across the Muslim world were shaken by protests against an anti-Islam film last month, a case of blasphemy in a Christian European country went largely unnoticed.
In crisis-stricken Greece, a 27-year-old man from the island of Evia was recently arrested on charges of malicious blasphemy and insult of religious beliefs for allegedly hosting a satirical page on Facebook mocking a monk whom some believe to be a saint. Both charges are misdemeanors that could, combined, result in up to two years in prison.
Elder Paisios was a monk who lived an ascetic life on Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece that has hosted monasteries and Orthodox Christian monks for more than 1,000 years. Elder Paisios became famous among the faithful for his gentleness, austere lifestyle, and for having visions and the gift of healing. He passed away in 1994 and since then, some have considered him to be a saint – although the Greek Orthodox Church hasn’t yet made such a decision.
Almost 20 years after his death, the Greek right-wing press often invokes Elder Paisios’ name to advance their cause. These publications frequently prophesise wars and confrontations between religions and ethnicities, such as between Muslim Turkey and Christian Greece.
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In order to mock this type of rhetoric, the 27-year-old – whose name has not been made public – created a satirical Facebook page called “Elder Pastitsio the Pastafarian”, featuring a funny picture made with Photoshop, criticising this speech and its consequences. Pastitsio is a traditional Greek dish made out of baked pasta with ground beef and bechamel sauce.
The 27-year-old also supposedly wrote and spread a fictional story about a miracle Elder Paisios performed, in which a comatose young man was healed when his mother put dirt from the monk’s grave under his pillow. The story was published on several right-wing blogs as well as in a far-right newspaper.
Golden Dawn’s involvement
The rest of the story sounds ridiculous, but is revealing about the consequences of the financial and political crisis that has hit Greece. The neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, whose MPs enjoy parliamentary immunity – despite having been repeatedly accused of involvement in crime – brought the issue to the Greek parliament. MP Christos Pappas condemned the Facebook page and asked the government whether it would tolerate such blasphemous expressions online, and also criticised other online media such as the website Athens Indymedia. Two days later, the Greek police arrested the creator of the page and confiscated his laptop on a controversial legal basis, after a district attorney asked Facebook to hand over to the Greek police the man’s personal data. The district attorney claimed the Facebook page could threaten lives by leading to a revolt of devoutly religious Greeks.
Greek social media users were shocked, and the hashtag #freegeronpastitsios became a global trend on Twitter for almost a day. Ten more Facebook pages satirising Elder Paisios were created shortly thereafter, and have been pretty successful.
Unfortunately, Greeks who are proud they live in a secular democracy protecting the freedom of speech discovered that not only is secularism limited in the country, but also learned that last March, during the governance of a three-party coalition lead by prime minister and former banker Lucas Papademos and the troika, the law against blasphemy was strengthened, widening possible prison sentences to six months. The irony in this case is that the very same day that the author of Elder Pastitsios was arrested, the Greek police brutally cracked down on some Muslim protestors’ attempt to demonstrate outside the American embassy in Athens.
Online speech in Greece is falsely believed to be free and unregulated. Speech on the internet is regulated by various authorities – beginning with the social networks themselves and extending to undemocratic power structures. Social and political rights activists know that they can be targeted, arrested and prosecuted.
But neither Facebook nor the Greek justice system has ever attempted to arrest paramilitaries who promote their illegal actions online. Fascists, racists and neo-Nazis who clearly promote hate speech have nothing to fear.
Greek internet users and the public now know well that it might not be democratic consensus but parastate organisations that regulate certain rights in this country. The Greek police announced that it operated under the command of hundreds of claims it received from faithful citizens against the page but the concurrency of the arrest with Golden Dawn’s actions only adds to the feeling.
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Golden Dawn may be a parliamentary force today, but it has been accused of operating as a parastate organisation. On many occasions, the Guardian has reported, police officers have referred Greek citizens to Golden Dawn, claiming they are unable to provide security. A few days after the arrest over the Facebook page, a group of antifascist protestors who tried to stop members of Golden Dawn from attacking immigrants and their properties was arrested and reportedly tortured by the Greek police.
The latest example of how Golden Dawn can be influencing the state came just a few days ago, when Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panayiotaros asked the ministry of interior affairs to inform him about the number of kindergarten students who are immigrants. The state is preparing to hand over these facts to Golden Dawn, despite the fact that the party has openly threatened to invade kindergartens and throw immigrant children out.
Cases like this redirect the public’s attention to issues of minor importance and away from the important ones. For example, many tax-evading Greeks have taken large amounts of money out of the country, while workers and pensioners have seen their salaries and pensions slashed. It was recently revealed the Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, handed a list of tax evaders to the previous minister of finance, Giorgos Papakonstantinou, but he did not use the list to raise additional revenue. But they also help construct the sense of fear and authoritarianism that is spreading rapidly now in the country.
As Mark LeVine recently wrote in an article for Al Jazeera, “it’s always been far too easy for those with power to misdirect the rage of others away from them and towards whatever social forces might challenge their control”.
This seems to be exactly the case in Greece today. While certain forces in the police and the political establishment were trying to reconstruct the old conservative front (based on religiosity, ethnicity and conservative values) along with reactionary formations like the Golden Dawn, new austerity measures were being decided upon that will make Greek workers and pensioners even more desperate.
Blasphemy, by introducing a divine entity into human affairs, serves only as an empty signifier aiming to create a boundary of “us” towards “them” and solidify questionable principles in stereotypes of religious and national identities. In the case of Paisios, the goal is to bring together the religious with the reactionaries, against progressives and the left.
The strategy has been successful: On Thursday, members of Orthodox Christian organisations along with Golden Dawn members – including MPs – attacked people outside a theatre in the centre of Athens while the police turned a blind eye. The play presents Jesus Christ from a homosexual point of view. One man said a Golden Dawn MP punched him twice in the face while police stood by. It’s been several days now since protestors and counter protestors met outside the theatre fighting over what used to be commonly accepted in this country: The freedom of artistic expression.
In the latest development of this case the Christian orthodox bishop of Siatista condemned Golden Dawn’s actions and whoever joins it’s MPs in actions of violence and provocation as being anti-christian and against the spirit of the church. But the very next day another Bishop, the one of the city of Piraeus filed a lawsuit against the director of the play, Laertis Vasileiou, escorted by five Golden Dawn MPs. The accusation again is malicious blasphemy. So now with God being claimed by fascists, the church has been forced to enter politics.
The best answers to both the anti-Islam film and the Elder Paisios incidents have been given by people from religious communities. In the case of the film, many Muslim scholars and religious leaders around the world condemned the attacks on embassies as having nothing to do with Islam. In the case of Paisios, a religious Greek blogger wrote: “Mocking someone’s belief is not only stupid but also disrespectful to the right of self-determination. Making fun of someone who has passed away is cheap and low. But using someone else’s faith in order to impose fascism is tragic and endlessly dangerous. Those who have a poor spirit are not always blessed – and no court has the right to judge opinions.”
Matthaios Tsimitakis is a freelance journalist based in Athens.