The European Humanist Federation (EHF) and the Greek Helsinki  Monitor (GHM) have called on Greece to abolish its outdated blasphemy laws, following the arrest last month of three actors, later charged with “blasphemy” offenses.

The arrests took place on 9 June 2012 in Athens. The three actors were taking part in a staging of the play Corpus Christi, directed by Laertes Vassiliou for the theater company Artisan.

Corpus Christi, by Terrence McNally,portrays Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples as homosexuals living in Texas, US. The Athens production is not the first to have caused controversy since its 1998 premiere in New York. However the sexual themes, and a scene in which Jesus administers a same-sex marriage, remain highly relevant to ongoing debates about religion and society.

Prior to the Athens production, the Greek Holy Synod condemned the play as “blasphemous, slandering the God-man face of Jesus Christ” and demanded that, “The screenwriters of the play must show the necessary respect to our people’s historic tradition and the teaching of our Church.”

In their joint statement, the European Humanist Federation and the Greek Helsinki Monitor said: “The EHF strongly defends freedom of expression, which includes the right to be critical about religions in  discussions or artistic expressions.  There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings, churches and religious groups should accept criticism, just as every group in society.”

Sonja Eggerickx, President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, commented, “No country should be punishing theaters or playwrights, let alone actors, for crimes of free expression in the twenty-first century. In Europe, not least Greece, there is a tradition of theater which is bold and socially challenging which goes back thousands of years. The Hellenic Parliament must be reminded that while theater and artistic expression have at times been censored, in the end this is always a backward step, and when performances are banned and performers harassed, audiences will clamor for it all the more.”

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has stressed on numerous occasions that freedom of expression constitutes “one of the essential foundations of [a democratic] society”, and this includes the expression of ideas which “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”. In a 2008 report, the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters) recommended that “the offense of blasphemy should be abolished (which is already the case in most European States) and should not be reintroduced”.

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