AIM: start

SUN, 03 JUN 2001 22:25:24 GMT

Greece: Good and Bad Religious Conversions

AIM Athens, May 31, 2001

"She was baptized with her 20 teachers as godfathers," was the title of a full-page article in the Sunday edition of the daily "Ethnos" on 13 May 2001. It was not in the "gossip" or "worldly" column though, but in the main domestic news one, as the person who was baptized was not a usual 1- or 2-year old Greek baby but a 14-year old Albanian. Sylvia Abedin from the Tepeleni area of Albania, a first-grade pupil at the high school in Vari (near Athens) with very high grades, "had chosen a month earlier to join Christianity," wrote the paper. "I chose the name of Christina to be reminding to all that I am now an Orthodox Christian" said the new convert and she added: "I could not stand watching my classmates going to church, praying to God and receiving holy communion, while I could not fill my soul." Christina-Sylvia, who lives in Vari with her parents Kudret and Hamide and her younger brothers Lorenzo and Eugene, felt the need to strongly reject her previous religion, if not her parents' choice of it: "My documents mentioned Muslim next to religion, without my knowing what that meant and why some others had chosen this reference for me." Her two best friends, Anna Lentina and Besiana Tsani, were also baptized, reports the newspaper, which then highlights Christina's most important quote: "I now feel so much Greek" …

A day earlier (12 May 2001), Greece's largest selling daily, "Eleftherotypia," reported on "the return of Marianthi," a 10-year old primary school pupil who was deported with her mother two-and-a-half months earlier because of their undocumented migrant status in the Aegean island of Kalymnos. Marianthi Haka, though, was lucky to be very popular among her classmates, who petitioned en masse the Minister of the Aegean Nikos Sifounakis for her return. As a result, Foreign Minister George Papandreou asked the consular authorities in Albania to grant Marianthi and her mother a visa. Upon her return, all her classmates made a trip to (and probably sponsored by) the Minister of the Aegean's office (… in Athens) to welcome back their treasured friend. It was an almost perfect story. Almost, as a phrase in the journalist article revealed the assimilationist approach of the community that invited Marianthi back: "They all called her yesterday a 'Greek woman of the society of the future'"… (see related stories in "Eleftherotypia" that covered exclusively the petition for, and the return of the pupil & 476).

Different is the fate of a Greek citizen who decides to convert from Christianity to Islam. He will be the focus not of sympathetic or at least neutral news coverage, but of a defamatory media campaign, alongside administrative harassment. Witness Enver Htenas, from Kavala. A descendant of a Turkish-speaking family that was forced to move to Greece because of the Christian religion of the head of the household in the 1920s' mandatory population exchange between Greece and Turkey, Andreas Htenas decided to convert to the religion of the other half of his family, Islam. After a two-month preparation period, the ceremony was held on 18 May 2001, in Komotini, by the state-appointed mufti Metso Cemali. Already during the preparatory period, news of his intention to convert leaked and he stated to Greek Helsinki Monitor that he had received many threatening calls, including by persons identifying themselves as working for the Greek Foreign Ministry.

Although the nearby Ministry's Xanthi office refuted to GHM such claims, the news story in Kavala's newspaper "Chronometro" (24 May 2001) offered ample evidence to confirm the harassment claims: "The conversion, as it is logical, mobilized even the services of the Foreign Ministry, since, according to rumors, Mr. Htenas was planning to proselytize other individuals as well to Islamism (sic), with the aim to create a group of twenty one individuals, so that he asks that they be recognized as Muslim community in Kavala!!!" In addition, in early May 2001, the Kavala state hospital decided that it wanted to proceed with construction of a new building in the premises of the Htenas family home and of his neighbor's home, two of the thousands of illegal constructions in the region. Within two days of the hospital's demand (7 May), the urban planning authorities ordered the tearing down of the homes (9 May), notified the Htenas family a day later (10 May) and forced them to move out by the end of May. It is an extremely unusual procedure for properties that had been known to be illegal for a decade. Given Greek bureaucracy, the swift decision a few days after the hospital's request raises many eyebrows, as the two evicted families, despite their request, were not given any time to relocate. In view of the general climate, it is difficult to convince Enver Htenas that this eviction was not a result of his conversion.

The message from these three events is clear. Greek society has an aversion to Muslims, that are often considered Islamists, i.e. fanatics; while it welcomes "good" aliens, it prefers that they also assimilate, by converting into the dominant Orthodox Christianity. Even Greece's various weight-lifting Olympic champions, imported in the 1990s from Albania or former Soviet countries, had not only to acquire Greek citizenship, but also to Hellenize their names and get baptized. No wonder then that the some 80,000 foreign pupils in Greece's schools have no chance to learn their mother tongue in those schools even if they are in sufficient numbers; or that the small community of "Muslims" -usually of Turkish-speaking Roma origin-, Greek citizens who have migrated from Thrace to Greater Athens, are refused any Turkish-language classes in their -formally 'multicultural'- schools, despite the insistent demand of their Greek teachers. At the same time Muslims of Greater Athens, whatever their ethnic origin or citizenship, continue not to have a mosque to pray -unless they can afford access to the penthouse of one luxurious hotel, specially converted for its affluent Arab clients. It appears that outside Thrace, Muslims are not welcome…

Panayote Dimitras