Blasphemy laws have been the subject of hot debate in recent weeks around the world, particularly in the Muslim world, where such laws are commonplace. But the latest controversy isn't somewhere in the Muslim world, it’s the cradle of Western civilization: Greece.
A man was arrested last week in Evia, Greece, on charges of posting “malicious blasphemy and religious insult on the known social networking site, Facebook” according to a press release by the Greek police.
The accused, whose identity has not been made public, had created and managed the Facebook page Elder Pastitsios the Pastafarian, a name that plays on a combination of Elder Paisios, a famous, late Greek-Orthodox monk, and the Greek food pastitsio, a baked pasta dish made of ground beef and béchamel sauce. The term "pastafarian" is a reference to the satirical pseudo-religion "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster," which has been used to lampoon creationism. The picture of Elder Pastitsios has a pastitsio where the monk’s face should be.
Paisios, who died in 1994, is well-known in Greece for his spiritual teachings. There have been dozens of books published about him and his prophecies, including such topics as the end of the world, the upbringing of children, couples' relationships, even the diet Paisios supposedly followed. Some high-ranking priests have proposed that the Orthodox Church sanctify him – a kind of elevation to sainthood.
“Pastitsios was pure satire and without any vulgar language or insults,” the accused said in an interview with the Greek website Pandoras Box, where he explained how he wanted to criticize the commercialization of Paisios. “I take the books and criticize them. I use satire.”
Greece is among the few countries in the European Union with active blasphemy laws. Under Article 189 of the Greek Criminal Code, those convicted of breaking the law can be imprisoned for up to two years.
“[The law] has problems,” says George Katrougalos, professor of public law at the Demokritos University of Thraces. “Especially, according to the [Greek] Constitution and the protections of freedom of speech, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. The intention of the legislator seems to have been to protect minorities in general, or even the public peace.”
The Greek police's online squad was able to identify the accused using his computer's IP address, which it procured from Facebook with a court order.
“Facebook disclosed basic subscriber information in response to a Greek court order,” Iain Mackenzie, pan-Euro communications manager of Facebook, wrote in an e-mail. When asked whether Facebook knew what type of charges the user was subject to, he replied: “We wouldn't get into discussing specific information like that. On the occasion, that we are forced by a court to release information.”
The issue of the Pastitsios page was brought to the attention of the minister of public order by a member of parliament belonging to Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist party that entered the Greek legislature for the first time in May. Golden Dawn's popularity has been rising, and as a result it is able to influence the public agenda, with the help of the populist Greek media and the government’s fear of losing its more conservative voters.
"Obviously, the law is irrational since God doesn’t need to be protected by any criminal code," says Professor Katrougalos. “What the young man did was express himself. For some, it may have been in a distasteful manner but you can’t prosecute taste.”