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Old Greek Blasphemy Laws Stir Up Modern Drama

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Before he died in 1994, a Greek monk named Elder Paisios told his compatriots to turn to faith in hard times.

The monk is said to have predicted the economic crisis — as well as a triumphant return of a Greek empire.

With unemployment now at Great Depression levels, many Greeks see him as a prophet.

But that bothers Philippos Loizos, a 27-year-old scientist. "It seems like every time there's a crisis in Greece, there's a search for saviors," says Loizos. "We wait for a sign from God or an enlightened leader. Greeks haven't figured out how to problem-solve, so we wait for someone else to save us."

Loizos set up a Facebook page that criticized Elder Paisios as xenophobic and close-minded. He also mocked the monk's name — Paisios became Pastitsios, like the Greek pasta dish. He even Photoshopped a slice of pastitsio on the monk's face.

"I got a lot of postings and messages through the page," he says. "Most were against what I was doing, and I got threatened and called names. But some people said, 'Bravo, we're with you.' "

A Free Speech Issue

The police were not among Loizos' supporters. They said they received thousands of complaints about his "Elder Pastitsios" Facebook page.

Last September, they arrested him and charged him with blasphemy, which carries up to six months in prison.

Many Greeks saw his case as a theocratic stifling of free speech. It was the first of two blasphemy arrests in recent months.

In the years before the crisis, Greece rarely invoked the law, though a version of it has been in the penal code since the 1850s.

Back then, many European countries had blasphemy laws because God was seen as determining the community's destiny, says David Nash, a history professor at Oxford Brookes University in Britain. "If you go back to the origins of blasphemy laws in medieval times, they're very much about protecting the community," he says.

But in the 20th century, Nash adds, most European countries took action to separate church and state and phased out blasphemy laws.

In Greece, the Orthodox Church remains powerful, and its opinions about blasphemy hold sway. But the church does not get involved with the law, says Haris Konidaris, a spokesman for Archbishop Ieronymos of Greece.

Ultranationalists Organize Protest

Christian activists have pushed prosecutors to make arrests on blasphemy charges in the past.

And in the past year, the neofascist Golden Dawn party has also called for such arrests during speeches in the Parliament.

Yannis Ktistakis, a human-rights attorney, says the blasphemy laws fit into their agenda. "It's the political agenda of nationalism," he says. "They think that now is the time to call [on] Greeks to think about their 'special' identity."

On the pretext of defending Greek identity and the Greek Orthodox faith, a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy screamed obscenities as he led a mob that stormed a controversial play this October. The mob, which included priests, also threw rocks at those attending the Greek production of Corpus Christi, the Terrence McNally play that portrays Jesus and his apostles as gay men in modern-day Texas.

The director, Laertis Vassiliou, says it was like being attacked by a Christian Taliban.

"For two months they were threatening our lives," he says. "Every day there were letters saying, 'You will burn to hell.' They said to my parents that, 'We will bring your son in a box — cut in pieces and in a box.' "

Archbishop Ieronymos strongly condemned the violence — though he says the play and the Facebook parody of Elder Paisios are blasphemous.

The state has charged Vassiliou and his cast under the blasphemy law but has dropped the charge against Loizos.

He still faces trial this year for the separate charge of insulting religion — which carries up to two years in prison.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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