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(Berlin) – The Athens public prosecutor’s office should drop its criminal blasphemy investigation relating to a play depicting Jesus Christ and his apostles as gay, Human Rights Watch said today. The Greek authorities should respect free expression and take immediate steps to abolish the blasphemy law, Human Rights Watch said.

The Athens public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation during the week of November 11, 2012, into whether the performance of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi violated Greece’s 1951 blasphemy law. The director, producers, and actors associated with the play risk charges of “insulting religions,” “malicious blasphemy,” and/or complicity in these acts. The prosecutor’s decision was triggered by complaints against those involved in the play brought by several people, including, media reports said, Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus.

“The director, producers, and actors have every right to stage this play, even if it is considered offensive or disrespectful by some,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities should be defending freedom of speech, not applying an outdated and problematic law.”

On the night of the play’s premiere, October 11, dozens of people including members of religious groups and two members of parliament from the far-right Golden Dawn party were filmed outside the theater by people at the scene intimidating and threatening people who wanted to attend the play. The play was canceled in early November after weeks of almost daily protests.

The criminal investigation into the Corpus Christi play follows the arrest of a 27-year-old man in September by the national electronic crimes squad in Evia, Greece, on suspicion of being behind a Facebook page satirizing a dead Greek Orthodox monk. The local prosecutor charged the man with “insulting religions” and released him pending trial. 

The 1951 law criminalizes “malicious blasphemy” and “insulting religions,” punishable by up to two years in prison. The last time anyone was prosecuted for blasphemy in Greece was in 2003. Gerhard Haderer, an Austrian writer, was prosecuted for his book, The Life of Jesus, on the grounds that it portrayed Jesus as a hippie. He was acquitted in 2005.

The Corpus Christi and Facebook prosecutions raise concerns about undue interference with freedom of expression and a new climate of intolerance in Greece toward those deemed to offend the Greek Orthodox religion, Human Rights Watch said. 

Video footage from the Corpus Christi premiere showed a Golden Dawn member of parliament, Christos Pappas, pulling a protester out of a police van after he had been detained while other police officers stood by and watched. According to media reports, on October 12, police forwarded a file against Pappas to the Athens prosecutor’s office, where a decision will be made about whether Pappas will face any charges and whether any police officers should also be charged. Human Rights Watch received information on November 19 from the Athens prosecutor’s office that a case-file has been opened and a preliminary investigation is being conducted into the incidents that took place on the night of the premiere.

After the protests at the premiere, Costas Tzavaras, a senior minister for religious affairs, rightly warned, Human Rights Watch said, that “art and culture are bound by their own rules.…We must not allow censorship to take the place of the critic.” In the same spirit, Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis stated following the Facebook prosecution that he is “firmly committed to the defense of the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of speech.” The justice minister does not have the authority to interfere with the decisions of autonomous prosecutors’ offices, however.

Under international and European human rights law, freedom of expression may be limited to protect public safety and the rights of others, but such limitations must be strictly “necessary” in a democratic society. The UN Human Rights Committee, in its definitive interpretation of freedom of expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has stated that blasphemy laws are in principle "incompatible with the Covenant" and that even permitted restrictions on freedom of expression should not “be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

Blasphemy and similar laws criminalizing free speech are frequently vaguely worded, allowing governments to interpret them as they wish.

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