Greek Church, State At Loggerheads Over ID Card Dispute

By Maria Kalafati | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Athens, Greece ( - Nearly a year after the Greek Orthodox Church launched a campaign to retain a citizen's religious affiliation on mandatory identity cards, the head of the church says more than three million Greeks had "bravely" backed the drive to oppose EU regulations.

The Greek government argues that including a person's religious affiliation on identity cards violates EU privacy requirements.

But Archbishop Christodoulo wants the government to conduct a referendum on the issue. "The people of God have spoken in a clear-headed and decisive manner, without any desire to enter a confrontation with the government," he said in a public statement, in which he set the number of signatures at 3,008,901.

"The six-month petition drive has been the church's only defense against the government's inexplicable, untimely and erroneous decision last year to remove the faith slot from new-issue ID cards, to protect citizens' privacy for the sake of globalization," the archbishop added.

Despite Christodoulos' appeal, however, President Costis Stephanopoulos said that there were no grounds for a referendum on the ID dispute.

The signatures collected "cannot possibly reverse the constitution," Stephanopoulos said. Nonetheless, he added that "few political leaders could ignore the political and moral weight of the slightly over three million signatures collected by the church on a nationwide petition."

The government's response appeared to put an end to the church's struggle to change government policy, which does not allow listing religious affiliation on IDs carried by adult citizens.

But the leader of Greece's more than 10 million Orthodox hinted this week that the church may take its case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The government insisted that although the number of signatures was considerable, that was beside the point.

"The number of signatures appended to the petition does not concern us and does not worry us," said spokesman Dimitris Reppas.

"It is a matter that will have no effect on our policy ... citizens' rights in Greece and of course in Europe, cannot subscribe to the rules of majority and minority.

"The overwhelming majority of a country's citizens cannot take decisions that would go against the rights of even one citizen," he added.

Religious minorities in Greece, including Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews, welcomed the government's stance. They feel the absence of religious affiliation on the cards will help prevent religious discrimination against minorities.

The year-long Greek Orthodox crusade prompted the conservative opposition to come out in favor of an optional listing of religion on IDs.

Former conservative prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis criticized Stephanopoulos for not using his personal prestige to effect a church-state reconciliation.

"We find ourselves in the unacceptable position ... of neither the Greek people having expressed its position in a referendum, nor parliament, while it is obvious, in my opinion, that the great majority of the people and the majority of parliament does not agree with the government's position," the former PM said. "This is a heavy constitutional aberration."