From nudity to “a political tsunami”: artistic freedom debated in Greece

Stills by Belgian artist Kris Verdonck, from A Two Dogs Company on Vimeo.

“My job is to make good art,” said Belgian artist Kris Verdonck. “I have no interest in being deliberately offensive or provocative.”

Verdonck was speaking at an event at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens last week, entitled Art Freedom Censorship. Featuring a range of international speakers and organisations, including Index on Censorship, the event was inspired by recent works and performances that have been shutdown in Greece following public outcry.

In Verdonck’s case, that outcry came predominantly from one man: a local priest.

Last year Onassis Cultural Centre put on one of Verdonck’s works, Stills, a series of oversized, slow-mo nudes that move within confined spaces. The artist has been showing the images around Europe, projected on to buildings associated with historical dictators. In Athens, the show lasted just one day before a priest complained. A staff member from Onassis was temporarily held in police custody before the centre agreed to halt the projections.

Also speaking at Art Freedom Censorship was director Pigi Dimitrakopoulou, who presented a play, Nash’s Balance, at Greece’s National Theatre in January, before it was pulled mid-run after vehement protests and threats of violence. The work used text taken from a book by Savvas Xiros, a convicted member of the 17 November group, which the Greek government considers a terrorist organisation.

In one of the more heated debates of the evening, Dimitrakopoulou said she hadn’t given much thought to censorship before being embroiled in the scandal. “I always thought I was too conservative to be affected by such things.” She spoke of a “political tsunami” that engulfed the show. “I expected a reaction, but more related to the work,” she said, adding that she believed most critics hadn’t seen it.

Greek journalist and publisher Elias Kanellis, who had been outspokenly against the decision to use the 17 November text, stood by his criticism but clarified that he never called for it to be censored. “Criticism is the founding principle of democracy,” he said. “But what if I were to publish Jihadi propaganda?”

Discussions also included a look at the role of the church in Greece today. Stavros Zoumboulakis, president of the supervisory council of the Greek National Library, spoke of orthodox priests refusing to admit the nation is now a post-Christian society, with only a tiny percentage attending mass. But Xenia Kounalaki, a journalist from Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, argued the issue was less about numbers of active worshipers, more a problem of top-down influence, which still extends into the nation’s education system.

Other speakers included former Charlie Hebdo columnist and author of In Praise of Blasphemy Caroline Fourest; Mauritanian filmmaker Lemine Ould M. Salem, who has run into difficulties with France’s film classification board over his documentary about Salafi fighters in Mali; and German director Daniel Wetzel, who is presenting a theatrical interpretation of Mein Kampf at Onassis in April.

Vicky Baker spoke at Art Freedom Censorship on behalf of Index on Censorship

The worst countries for religious freedom


Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma at a protest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Image: Khairil Safwan/Demotix)

Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma at a protest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Image: Khairil Safwan/Demotix)

At its core, freedom of religion or belief requires freedom of expression. Both fundamental rights are protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet nearly half of all countries penalize blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. In 13 countries, atheists can be put to death for their lack of belief.

The U.S. State Department names and shames eight “Countries of Particular Concern” that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders. These countries not only suppress religious expression, they systematically torture and detain people who cross political and social red lines around faith. The worst of the worst are:

1. Burma

Burma’s population is 90 percent Theravada Buddhist, a faith the government embraces and promotes over Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Minority populations that adhere to these and other faiths are denied building permits, banned from proselytizing and pressured to convert to the majority faith. Religious groups must register with the government, and Burmese citizens must list their faith on official documents. Burma’s constitution provides for limited religious freedom, but individual laws and government officials actively restrict it. Most at risk in Burma are Rohingya Muslims, 240 of whom were killed this year in clashes with Buddhist mobs. Burma has refused to grant citizenship to 800,000 Rohingya, 240,000 of whom have fled their homes in recent clashes.

2. China

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is officially an atheist organisation. China’s constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, but the government actively restricts any religious expression that could potentially undermine its authority. Only five religious groups — Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants — can register with the government and legally hold services. Adherents of unregistered faiths and folk religions often worship illegally and in secret. Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners have faced particularly severe repression in recent years, including forced conversion, torture and imprisonment.

3. Eritrea

The Eritrean government only recognizes four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. These groups enjoy limited religious freedom while adherents of other faiths face harassment and imprisonment. Religious persecution in Eritrea is generally driven by government rather than social concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors who refuse to enroll in compulsory military training are subject to physical abuse, detention and hard labour. People of non-recognized religions are barred from congregating in disused houses of worship and have trouble obtaining passports or visas to exit the country.

4. Iran

Iran’s constitution offers some religious freedom rights for recognized sects of Islam along with Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Baha’is, who the government considers apostates and labels a “political sect,” are excluded from these limited protections and are systematically discriminated against through gozinesh provisions, which limit their access to employment, education and housing. Evangelical Christians and other faith groups face persecution for violating bans on proselytizing. Religious minorities have been charged in recent years and imprisoned in harsh conditions for committing “enmity against God” and spreading “anti-Islamic propaganda.” Government-controlled media regularly attack Baha’is, Jews and other minority faiths to amplify social hostilities against them.

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Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that defends people’s freedom to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution. We fight censorship around the world.

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[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]5. North Korea

North Korea’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but this right is far from upheld. The state is officially atheist. Author John Sweeney says the country is “seized by a political religion” and that it considers established religious traditions a threat to state unity and control. North Korea allow for government-sponsored Christian and Buddhist religious organizations to operate and build houses of worship, but political analysts suspect this “concession” is for the sake of external propaganda. A Christian group says it dropped  50,000 Bibles over North Korea over the past year. If caught with one, citizens face imprisonment, torture or even death. Given the government’s extreme control over the flow of reliable information, it is difficult to determine the true extent of religious persecution in North Korea.

6. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s constitution is not a standalone document. It is comprised of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which do not include religious freedom guarantees as spelled out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Saudi, it is illegal to publicly practice any faith other than the state’s official religion Sunni Islam. Members of other faiths can worship privately, but non-Muslim houses of worship may not be built. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as Saudi’s morality or religious police, enforce Shariah law on the streets. Apostasy and blasphemy against Sunni Islam can be punished by death, as several high-profile Twitter cases have reminded global media in recent years.

7. Sudan

Sudan’s interim constitution partially protects religious freedom but restricts apostasy, blasphemy and defamation of Islam. Muslim women are also prevented from marrying non-Muslim men. The country’s vaguely worded apostasy law discourages proselytizing of non-Muslim faiths. Christian South Sudanese living in Sudan are subject to harassment and intimidation by government agents and society at large, but untangling the religious and ethnic motivations for this persecution can be difficult. Muslims generally enjoy social, legal and economic privileges denied to the Christian minority population. Government authorities have reportedly destroyed churches in recent years, and Christian groups have reportedly been subject to disproportionate taxes and delays in building new houses of worship. Read more about Sudan’s crackdown on Christians.

8. Uzbekistan

Proselytizing is prohibited in Uzbekistan, and religious groups must undergo a burdensome registration process with the government to enjoy what limited religious freedom is permitted in the country. More than 2,000 religious groups have registered with the government, the vast majority of which are Muslim but also include Jewish, Catholic and other Christian communities. Registered and unregistered groups are sometimes subject to raids, during which holy books have been destroyed. Individuals and groups deemed “extremist,” often for national security concerns rather than specific aspects of their faith, are imprisoned under harsh conditions and tortured, sometimes to death.

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Two years on, what’s happened to Egypt’s dream of religious freedom?

Egyptians who took to the streets in mass protests in January 2011 demanding the downfall of Mubarak’s authoritarian regime were rebelling — amongst other things — against restrictions on their civil liberties and infringement on their rights. Religious minorities, like Coptic Christians and Baha’is, who participated in the January 2011, 18- day mass uprising had hoped that toppling Egypt’s oppressive regime would usher in a new era of greater freedom of expression and equality. More than two years on, many of them say it has not.

Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Coptic Christians (who make up an estimated 12 per cent of the population) often complained of discrimination. They could not build or renovate churches without a presidential decree, never reached high positions in the army or police and were rarely appointed to senior government positions. Christians also had to settle for token representation in government and parliament (there were just two Christian ministers in the last cabinet before Mubarak was toppled).

In the last decade before Mubarak’s ousting, sectarian tensions flared sporadically in Egypt and those responsible for acts of violence against Copts were rarely brought to justice. Many Egyptians believe that a New Year’s Eve church bombing in Alexandria that left 21 people dead (mostly Christian worshippers who had been attending New Year’s Eve mass), fuelled the anger that led to the January 2011 revolt that erupted a few weeks later.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians were among the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in January 2011 demanding their rights as equal citizens. The rise of Islamists to power in Egypt post-revolution has raised concern among Christians that they could face further marginalisation and harassment.

During the presidential campaign, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had promised to be “a leader for all Egyptians.” He also vowed to appoint a Coptic-Christian Vice President and to “protect the rights of minorities.” But those promises have all fallen flat.

 Amr Alaswad - Demotix

A February demonstration in Tahrir Square against the Muslim Brotherhood

Last November, after violent clashes between Islamists and opposition protesters outside the Ittihadeya Presidential Palace over a Constitutional Declaration giving him absolute powers, Morsi addressed a rally organized by his Islamist supporters , accusing his opponents of being”‘paid thugs”. That appearance outside the palace earned Morsi criticism from liberal opposition parties and Christians who said that he had shown that he was the “President of the Islamists, rather than the elected leader of all Egyptians.”

Morsi has also reneged on his promise to appoint a Christian Vice President, appointing instead a Christian presidential aide — Samir Morcos — (the sole Christian out of a total of 21 presidential assistants) who resigned a few months later in protest at Morsi’s controversial decree. Morcos later said that the President had not consulted him before making the decision.

Egypt’s Christians also complain that Morsi has also done little to protect them against extremists’ threats..

Churches have continued to be torched and death threats by extremists have forced many Christians to flee their homes and at times — their villages — en masse. In the past year alone, Christians have been forcibly evacuated from the Alexandria district of Amreya and from Dahshour, a village 40 kms south of Cairo following sectarian tensions in their neighborhoods.

More recently, Christian families in the North Sinai border town of Rafah have had to flee to neighboring towns after receiving death threats from extremists. In October 2011, 27 Coptic Christians were killed by military and security forces during a protest staged outside the State Television building in downtown Cairo by Christians demanding government protection for their churches. Video footage of what has since come to be known as the “Maspero Massacre” showed Armoured Personnel Carriers running over protesters and live ammunition being used against them. Most of the victims died of gun-shot wounds .

Almost a year and a half later, no-one has been held responsible for the deaths. Instead, two Copts — Michael Naguib and Michael Shaker — have been convicted for their involvement in the violence after being charged with stealing a machine gun from the military and causing damage to public property. They have each been sentenced to three years in prison.

A new Islamist-backed constitution passed in a popular referendum in December 2012 has fueled fears of further alienation of Egypt’s religious minorities. Rights advocates say the new charter “restricts freedom of belief by limiting the right to practice one’s religion to the adherents of Abrahamic religions, thus discriminating against citizens on the basis of religion and undermining equal citizenship.”

Meanwhile, Article 2, stipulating that “the principles of Islamic Sharia Law are the main source of legislation” has remained unchanged from the previous Constitution, dashing hopes for a secular state aspired to by liberal opposition forces and Christians during the uprising. The only change in that provision is that Al Azhar — the highest authority in Sunni Islam — has now been tasked with interpreting those principles, a decision that critics say “indoctrinates a specific religious school of thought.”

Furthermore, liberals and Christians have expressed concern that an article which provides that “the state and society oversee the commitment to the genuine character of the Egyptan family ” may open the door for enforcement of a hardline vision of society by morality police. While the provision has had little impact in the past, Christians and liberal activists fear it may take on a new meaning under the Islamist regime. And last but not least, an article that guarantees freedom of expression and opinion has been undercut by other provisions that prohibit defamation and insults of people and prophets. Critics say both such articles restrict free expression as well as personal and religious freedom.

Indeed, media hate speech targeting Coptic Christians in recent weeks has confirmed Christians’ worst fears. Radical Salafi preachers appearing on independent religious channels have increasingly criticised Christians and incited violence against them. Islamist cleric Ahmed Abdalla (popularly known as Abu Islam) who burnt a Bible during a protest sparked by anger over the anti- Islam film “Innocence of Muslims ” last year, faces detention after being charged with “contempt of religion” — a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment in Egypt. A Coptic Christian lawyer had earlier filed a lawsuit against Abu Islam, accusing him of calling Christian women protesters “whores” on his TV talk show. Abu Islam had earlier stirred controversy by justifying rape and sexual assault against women who join the Tahrir protests saying that they go there because “they want to get raped.” Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel demanded that Abu Islam be prosecuted, adding that “Copts are bitter over the absence of justice in cases involving Christians.”

Seven Coptic Christians have been sentenced to death in absentia for their role in the anti-Islam film that sparked protests across the Muslim World last year. In October 2012, two Coptic children aged 10 and 9 were arrested and detained on charges of insulting Islam after they ripped pages from the Qur’an.

While the country’s new constitution grants Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims the right to “worship freely”, that same right is not afforded to other religious minorities in the country — such as Baha’is — who are banned from building places of worship.

For decades, Egypt’s estimated 4,000 Baha’is have been kept on the margins. The current discriminatory policies against them are a carry over from successive regimes. Unrecognised by the state, Baha’is were in the past, unable to obtain national ID cards (which allow holders to vote, buy and sell property and open bank accounts.) That changed in 2008 when a Cairo Court granted Bahais the right to issue Identification documents — albeit without stating their religion on the cards. All IDs of Baha’is are marked with a dash, thus distinguishing them from followers of the three officially recognised faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism). While the IDs have given Bahais certain rights (allowing them to issue other documents like birth, marriage and divorce certificates and enabling them to vote), they’ve also contributed to deepening the discrimination and stigma associated with the yet-unrecognised faith.

“I’ve heard stories of Bahais who’ve been rounded up and detained for nothing more than their faith,” said Somaya Ramadan, an Egyptian academic and award-winning writer who follows the Baha’i faith. She recalled that armed security forces had stormed the home of a Baha’i family in Tanta some years ago and arrested a Baha’i woman in the middle of the night , leaving her young children unattended. Like many followers of her faith, Ramadan is worried that Islamist rule in Egypt could lead to an upsurge in religious intolerance against members of her community and subsequently, restrict their freedom of expression, religion and assembly.

Recent statements by Education Ministry officials advocating that “Bahai children may have difficulty enrolling in government schools in future because the constitution only recognises the three Abrahamic faiths,” have confirmed Bahais’ worst fears.

“The January 2011 Revolution raised our hopes for justice, equality and freedom but now, we feel let down,” Ramadan told Index .

“The current government favours Muslims over people of other faiths. This attitude can only reinforce hypocrisy, encouraging people to lie about their religious beliefs. Islamising the society will only deepen the sectarian divisions in the country — The disenfranchisement of Bahais and other religious minorities must end.”

Still, she remains hopeful and is confident that change will come.

For that to happen, Egyptians need to take some bold steps to put their country back on a path of reconciliation and compromise — including amending provisions to the constitution that are ambiguous or unpopular with the public. President Morsi has recently appointed a committtee of legal experts and representatives of opposition political parties to discuss amendments to the charter. For the secular opposition activists and religious minorities in Egypt, the talks are a new opportunity to press for a document that truly secures freedom of religious expression and respects human rights — necessary conditions for a viable democracy.