/ 13 January 2006

Even in death, it’s best to be Orthodox in Greece

Never a laughing matter in Greece, death is even more grave for the country’s non-Orthodox communities, whose shortage of sanctioned burial grounds has long been compounded by legal restrictions and official apathy by the Greek state.

“Discrimination against non-Orthodox believers in Greece also applies in cases of death,” says Dede Abdulhalim, an activist of the Muslim minority in the north-eastern Greek region of Thrace, the sole area with Muslim cemeteries.

“For a Muslim, there is practically no chance of burial outside Thrace,” Abdulhalim says. “Local municipalities always find an excuse [against it], under the influence of the Orthodox Church.”

Greece’s Catholic community faces similar difficulty outside the few cemeteries under its control, says church spokesperson Nikolaos Gasparakis, noting that “even when a place is found in a cemetery, Greek priests forbid the use of the adjacent chapel”.

Ironically, even the Orthodox nowadays run afoul of the problem facing Greece’s non-Orthodox population, which constitutes about 2% of the country’s estimated 10,6-million.

“In Athens, even the Orthodox have trouble finding a grave, because of a lack of space,” says Yiannis Ktistakis, general secretary of the Greek Human Rights League.

But conditions for the non-Orthodox are worse in the countryside, because of the “sectarian” attitude of local authorities, he adds.

As a result, about 25 000 Muslims with Greek citizenship resident in Athens often have no choice but to seek passage to Thrace by rented taxi or van, says Abdulhalim.

Thousands of Muslim immigrants living in the capital face a similar 800km trek to the north-eastern corner of Greece.

“And when the money is not enough, some relatives just declare the deceased to be Orthodox,” notes Abdulhalim.

“The situation is even worse for immigrants than for non-Orthodox Greeks,” says Gasparakis, the Catholic Church spokesperson.

“A few years ago, an Orthodox bishop in the Peloponnese refused to allow not only burial but also Mass for a Polish man,” he says. “We have alerted the authorities on several occasions, but we have met indifference, even though the law is on our side.”

For those selecting cremation, which is prohibited under Greek Orthodox Church writ, the only choice is to travel outside Greece’s borders, the nearest option being Bulgaria.

A looming shortage of space at Greek cemeteries recently led the government to indicate that it might reconsider its ban on cremation.

But Education Minister Marietta Yannakou, the competent state official, immediately qualified that this measure would only apply to non-Orthodox believers.

Standard practice in Greek state cemeteries dictates that relatives exhume the body of a deceased three years after burial, to free space for the next occupant.

But even this solution is not available to Muslims, whose religion prohibits exhumation.

“It is imperative for Athens to finally acquire a Muslim cemetery, the way other European capitals have done,” says Abdulhalim.

The Greek Orthodox Church in December unexpectedly announced that it would donate land for a Muslim cemetery in a depressed district west of Athens.

But for the time being, the Muslim community can only wonder whether this proposal will have the fate of a planned mosque, officially announced by the Greek state years ago but still nowhere in sight. — AFP