March 3, 2011
Greek Orthodoxy, Anti-Semitism, and Religious Intolerance
ἐντολὴν καινὴν δίδωμι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους· καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους. ἐν τούτῳ γνώσονται πάντες ὅτι ἐμοὶ μαθηταί ἐστε, ἐὰν ἀγάπην ἔχητε ἐν ἀλλήλοις.
Recent weeks have reminded me of why I love Jews so much: they’re supermen (and women). Numbering only 14 million worldwide, they really get around. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has detected a “Jewish conspiracy” to discredit him and his organization, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan has discovered that Jews and Zionists are trying to push the U.S. to go to war with his good buddy Moammar Gaddafi (“my brother and my friend”), and Yemen’s president has revealed that Israel is behind that country’s unrest. That there are Jew-haters in the public square is undeniably true. What is also undeniably true is that if any of these leaders had made similar statements in Athens, they would have been greeted with indifference (at best) and perhaps faint applause. Greece now has a reputation as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. It is also somewhat hostile to minority faiths, including the LDS Church. Given that 95% of the country’s population claims to be Greek Orthodox, it is past time for that church to invoke its considerable moral authority to preach tolerance and respect to its members, including government officials.
This is a painful essay for me to write. I grew up attending the Greek festival at St. Demetrios Church in Michigan, and still attend the LA Greek Fest at St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles and the Valley Greek festival at St. Nicholas Church in Northridge. I took a class in Russian iconography and have visited Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia, Romania, Moldova, Israel, Egypt and Italy. One of the first things I see every morning is a Mother of God Bulgarian icon from the Rila Monastery, a treasured gift from a friend who knows of my love of icons. The Orthodox Easter service is one of my favorite religious experiences, and a Bulgarian Orthodox priest in Los Angeles invited me to join him at the altar behind the iconostasis (a rare privilege) after seeing how moved I was by the icons in the church. In short, I have a deep appreciation for Orthodox liturgy and symbolism, and believe that they are capable of teaching and inspiring people in a profound way.
These teachings are sorely needed in a country where a neo-Nazi (Nikolaos Michaloliakos)was elected to the Athens city council last fall, where a prominent composer (Mikis Theodorakis) exclaimed “We’re in danger! Zionism and its leaders are here, meeting in our country!” in a television interview while a delegation of Jewish leaders was visiting the country, where the Supreme Court acquitted a Holocaust denier (Kostas Plevris) of inciting racial hatred last year because his book only detailed the Jews’ “conspiratorial pursuit of global domination,” and where an Orthodox Metropolitan (Seraphim) declared on national television last month that “world Zionism” was conspiring to destroy Greece and the Orthodox Church. [In a “statement of clarification,” the Metropolitan added, “My public vehement opposition against International Zionism refers to the organ that is the successor of the ‘Sanhedrin’ which altered the faith of the Patriarchs, the Prophets and the Righteous of the Jewish nation through the Talmud, the Rabbinical writings and the Kabbalah into Satanism, and always strives vigorously towards an economic empire set up throughout the world with headquarters in the great land beyond the Atlantic for the prevalence of world government and pan-religion.”]
I am certainly not claiming that there is an anti-Semite behind every Athenian corner or that anti-Semitism is widespread in Greece. Rather, I tend to agree with writer Andrew Apostolou that the Greeks’ sins are indifference and apathy. In the Wall Street Journal, Apostolou wrote: “The fundamental problem with Greek anti-Semitism is not that it is rampant. It is that in a country of 11 million with just 5,000 Jews, few Greeks care to resist it. Greece suffers from a lack of moral, religious and social leadership denouncing the embarrassment of anti-Semitism.” Anti-Semitism is not just a character defect, it is evil. History has shown that societies that tolerate virulent anti-Semitism have serious underlying problems. Greece’s recent financial meltdown, corruption scandals and civil unrest show that it is no exception.
Unfortunately, Mark’s First Principle of Persecution is also evident in Greece: those who dislike Jews almost always dislike Mormons as well. The country’s constitution and laws prohibit proselytizing, though they are often ignored. In response to concern expressed by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance that proselytizing in Greece was a criminal offense, the Greek government claimed that those laws had “long since fallen into disuse” and that only coercive or disruptive missionary efforts would be punished. Nevertheless, according to the U.S. State Department, at least 8 LDS missionaries have been arrested in the last 3 years. Six were released within two hours, and two missionaries spent two days in jail before being tried and acquitted of all charges. Former missionaries in Greece whom I contacted expressed their love for the Greek people and culture before sharing stories of police harassment and hostility towards church members and missionaries stoked by local Orthodox bishops and priests.
Unfortunately, I have experienced this hostility from Orthodox clerics firsthand. While serving as a missionary in southern Italy, local Mormons directed me to a Russian Orthodox church whose priest was encouraging the whole neighborhood to shun Mormons and persecute their missionaries. After a lengthy discussion in Russian, the priest agreed not to harass Mormons and apologized for any resentment he had created. As far as I know, he kept his word. No apologies, however, have been forthcoming from other Orthodox clergy in the region. Romanian Mormons have told me of an Orthodox priest who ripped up a Book of Mormon in public, and anti-Mormon sentiment in the Russian Orthodox Church is well-known. It’s a shame that Mormons in those countries can’t be shown the same level of respect and courtesy that is extended to members of Orthodox churches in Utah.
The Orthodox Church is the only institution in Greece that has the respect and moral authority to promote tolerance towards other faiths and to combat anti-Semitism. I am disappointed that it has so far chosen not to make this a priority. If the church is indeed preaching tolerance, then it clearly needs to do more. I expect exemplary moral leadership from a state church that is subsidized by a modern EU-member country. As my thoughtful LDS friend Sheryl likes to say, if the Orthodox Church truly believes that it represents the continuation of Christ’s church and his teachings, and claims the apostolic line of authority through the bishops, then it should not feel threatened by yarmulke-wearing non-Christians or by a few missionaries. Until I see more rejection of religious bigotry by Greeks and their church, I’m afraid I won’t be traveling to their beautiful country. However, my lovely Orthodox icon will stay right where it is.
My podcast interview on LDS-Jewish relations is available on the LDS Church’s official radio station: http://feeds.lds.org/WhyIBelieve
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Dr. Armand Mauss, and Brett Holbrooke will conduct an LDS-Jewish dialogue at University Synagogue in Irvine, CA on Friday, March 11 @ 8:00 p.m.
Thousand Oaks Stake Director of Public Affairs Larry Bagby and I will be making a presentation on LDS beliefs at Adat Elohim on March 16 @ 7:30 p.m.
I will be speaking at the San Antonio (TX) West Stake’s Education Weekend on April 15 and 16