Here’s an interesting report from NPR on two recent prosecutions for the crime of blasphemy in Greece. In the first, the government brought a blasphemy charge against the poster of a Facebook page that mocks a famous Orthodox monk; the government has since dropped the blasphemy charge but has maintained a prosecution for the separate crime of “insulting religion.” In the second, the government is prosecuting the producers of a Greek translation of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, a play that depicts Jesus and his disciples as a group of gay men in Texas.
Most European states have abolished the crime of blasphemy. The U.K. did so in 2008. Nonetheless, the European Court of Human Rights has held more than once that states may criminalize blasphemy in order to protect human dignity—that is, in order to protect the religious sensibilities of listeners from gratuitous and substantial offense. States can’t ban all criticism of religion, of course, only criticism that is insulting or abusive. Obviously, this is not an easy line to draw. In the U.S., in fact, the Supreme Court has suggested strongly that blasphemy laws are unconstitutional, in part because of the line-drawing problems.
What about the Greek prosecutions in these cases? I can’t read Greek, but the Facebook page in question, which you can access from the NPR story, seems more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. I’m not surprised the government dropped the blasphemy prosecution, though, of course, the prosecution for “insulting religion” continues. The Corpus Christi case seems closer to those in which the European Court has allowed blasphemy prosecutions in the past. In the 1990s, the court allowed Austria to ban a film that depicted sexual tensions between Christ and the Virgin Mary, and allowed the U.K. to ban a film depicting the vision of St. Teresa of Avila in erotic terms. So the Court might be inclined to allow prosecution in the Corpus Christi case, too, if the case ever reaches Strasbourg. Then again, Greece doesn’t stand so high in the opinion of European institutions these days.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.