A Greek court ruled that two human rights activists falsely accused a Greek Orthodox bishop of hate speech and sentenced them to year-long prison sentences that were suspended for three years on Tuesday.
Bishop Seraphim, who is the Metropolitan of Piraeus, was acquitted on charges of hate speech.
The bishop has made what many believe are both coded and explicit references to antisemitic tropes many times. When Greece introduced new legislation to expand rights for gay and lesbian couples in 2015, he claimed that an “international Zionist monster” was behind the bill.
Seraphim of Piraeus claimed Jews orchestrated the Holocaust
He also claimed that Jews themselves funded and planned the Holocaust and charged that they were the reason for Greece’s financial troubles on Greek television five years ago.
After his statement about the Holocaust began to garner controversy, the Greek Orthodox Bishop clarified that it was his own opinion and not that of the Greek Orthodox Church.
These comments were seen as extremely troubling in a country whose once vibrant Jewish community was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, and antisemitic rhetoric and attacks, usually in the form of vandalism, are still a major problem.
The accused brought a formal complaint against the Bishop in 2017 in which they claimed he fueled hatred and incited violence against Greece’ Jewish minority with his inflammatory statements about Jews and the Holocaust. They also claimed that he had abused his office.
The prosecutor dismissed the activists’ complaint in 2019, but the Bishop decided to file his own motion against the activists for falsely accusing him of hate speech, and the prosecutor subsequently formally charged the accused in November.
Greece passed Law No. 4285/2014 in 2014, which criminalized hate speech — particularly speech which incites violence — and genocide denial.
The law reads “Anyone, who publicly incites, provokes, or stirs, either orally or through the press, the Internet, or any other means, acts of violence or hatred against a person or group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, in a manner that endangers the public order and exposes the life, physical integrity, and freedom of persons defined above to danger, will be punished by imprisonment of from three months to three years and a fine of €5,000 to €20,000.”
The fines amount to about $6,455- $25,820.
Human rights groups around the world paid careful attention to the case; many believed that bringing the activists to trial alone was a sign of an alarming shift of the judicial system’s role in the country as a force against activists.
Amnesty International: “Direct threat to right of freedom of expression”
Amnesty International stated on social media that “The ruling poses a direct threat to the right to freedom of expression and has a chilling effect on human rights defenders advocating against racism and hate speech.”
Andrea Gilbert, one of the accused, who works for the Greek Helsinki Monitor rights group, expressed her outrage at the verdict to The Guardian:
“Today’s outrageous verdict is representative of the institutionalized antisemitism that exists in Greece…We have immediately appealed and will fight it all the way.”
Activists and people who work for NGOs argue that the trial epitomizes how difficult it is for them to work in Greece.
“Human rights defenders (in Greece) are consistently targeted for their legitimate work…(They) face different types of attacks, including surveillance, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests, detentions, ill-treatment, entry bans and expulsions,” the international secretariat of the World Organization Against Torture stated to The Guardian.
Although not included in the activists’ initial complaint of hate speech against Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim, he is also known to express what many believe are homophobic sentiments.
He has claimed that homosexuality brings about disease and can be “carcinogenic.” He has also called homosexuality an issue of “psychopathology” rather than sexuality.
In 2021, when Greece was hit with catastrophic wildfires that destroyed vast swaths of land and thousands of houses, Seraphim released a statement in which he hinted that the fires were a punishment for Greece adopting legislation that expanded the rights of gay people, writing:
“With love I would say to our leaders that when they show off the subversion of human ontology and human nature and institutionalize it as a “human right,” despite the fact that it doesn’t have any relationship with human nature, and they view it as a plus on their CV for advancement in their position of authority, they don’t understand that this is hubris, and each instance of hubris requires purification and ‘just repayment.'”