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PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 107th CONGRESS, 1st SESSION

Vol. 147 Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2001 No. 38

House of Representatives


CELEBRATING GREEK INDEPENDENCE DAY



HON. CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH

OF NEW JERSEY

Tuesday, March 20, 2001


Madam Speaker, 180 years ago the Greek people rose against the Ottoman Empire to free themselves from oppression and to reestablish not only a free and independent state, but a country that would eventually regain her ancient status as a democracy. In congratulating the people of Greece on the anniversary of their revolution, I join in recognizing the distinction earned by Greece as the birthplace of democracy and her special relationship with the United States in our fight together against Nazism, communism and other aggression in the last century alone. Yes, democrats around the world should recognize and celebrate this day together with Greece to reaffirm our common democratic heritage.
 
Yet, Mr. Speaker, while the ancient Greeks forged the notion of democracy, and many Greeks of the last century fought to regain democracy, careful analyses of the political and basic human freedoms climate in today's Greece paint a sobering picture of how fundamental and precious freedoms are treated.
 
Taking a look at the issues which have been raised in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimension Review Meetings and will be considered over the next week at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a few of the most critical human dimension concerns about contemporary Greece affect the freedom of expression, the freedom of religious belief and practice, and protection from discrimination.
 
Legal restrictions on free speech remain on the books, and those convicted have typically been allowed to pay a fine instead of going to jail. In recent years, though, Greek journalists and others have been imprisoned based on statements made in the press. This was noted in the most recent Country Report on Human Rights Practices prepared by the Department of State. The International Press Institute has also criticized the frequent criminal charges against journalists in cases of libel and defamation.
 
Religious freedom for everyone living in Greece is not guaranteed by the Greek Constitution and is violated by other laws which are often used against adherents of minority or non-traditional faiths. Especially onerous are the provisions of Greek law which prohibit the freedom of religion.
 
These statutes have a chilling impact on religious liberty in the Hellenic Republic and are inconsistent with numerous OSCE commitments which, among other things, commit Greece to take effective measures to prevent and eliminate religious discrimination against individuals or communities; allow religious organizations to prepare and distribute religious materials; ensure the right to freedom of expression and the right to change one's religion or belief and freedom to manifest one's religion or belief. Over the last ten years, the European Court of Human Rights has issued more than a dozen judgments against Greece for violating Article 9 (pertaining to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
 
One positive development was the decision made last summer to remove from the state-issued national identity cards the notation of one's religious affiliation. In May 2000, Minister of Justice Professor Mihalis Stathopoulos publicly recognized that this practice violated Greece's own Law on the Protection of Personal Data passed in 1997. The decision followed a binding ruling made by the relevant Independent Authority which asked the state to remove religion as well as other personal data (fingerprints, citizenship, spouse's name, and profession) from the identity cards. This has long been a pending human rights concern and an issue raised in a hearing on religious freedom held by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (which I Co-Chair) in September 1996.
 
I am pleased to note that Greece has acknowledged in its most recent report to the UN CERD that the problems faced by the Roma community (which has been a part of Greek society for more than 400 years), migrant workers and refugees are ``at the core of the concern of the authorities.'' The recognition that issues which need attention is always the first step necessary to addressing the problem. The Commission has received many reports regarding the Roma community in Greece, including disturbing accounts of pervasive discrimination in employment, housing, education, and access to social services, including health care. With a very high illiteracy rate, this segment of Greek society is particularly vulnerable to abuse by local officials, including reports of Roma being denied registration for voting or identity cards that in turn prevents them from gaining access to government-provided services. Particularly alarming are incidents such as the forced eviction of an estimated 100 families by order of the mayor of Ano Liossia and the bulldozing of their makeshift housing in July of 2000. Similar incidents have occurred in recent years in Agia Paraskevi, Kriti, Trikala, Nea Koi, and Evosmos.
 
Our Founding Fathers relied heavily on the political and philosophical experience of the ancient Greeks, and Thomas Jefferson even called ancient Greece ``the light which led ourselves out of Gothic darkness.'' As an ally and a fellow participating State of the OSCE, we have the right and obligation to encourage implementation of the commitments our respective governments have made with full consensus. I have appreciated very much and applaud the willingness of the Government of Greece to maintain a dialogue on human dimension matters within the OSCE. We must continue our striving together to ensure that all citizens enjoy their fundamental human rights and freedoms without distinction.




Countries

Greece

Issues

Roma
Rule of Law/Independence of Judiciary


   
 

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Sen. Cardin (left) with Rep. Alcee L. Hastings at the Helsinki Commission Mediterranean Seminar in July 2009