January 02

 

Seven Hours in a Greek Courtroom

by Samuel E. Ericsson
 

On December 4, I had the unforgettable experience of serving as the expert witness in a trial in Greece. This was a very important religious freedom case in the country and one of the most significant religious freedom cases in Europe this year. Fifteen Pentecostals in a small rural community were accused of "proselytizing" by a local Orthodox priest and police chief.

My presence at the trial was my first visit to a Greek courtroom. It was a bit of His-Story. All remaining travel for 2001 had been cancelled. However, due to some crucial events in Albania and Bulgaria, which could impact our religious liberty efforts in those countries, it became necessary to travel to the Balkans. My trip from Bulgaria en route to Albania included a one-day stop-over in Athens. After I had booked my travel, I received an e-mail from Vassilios Tsirbis, our Greek "innkeeper" asking if I could serve as his expert witness. The day of the trial was the day I was planning to be in Greece.

Vassilios Tsirbis is senior counsel for the European Center for Law and Justice and the lawyer for 10 of the 15 defendants. Until a few weeks before the trial, the 10 planned to leave the trial "in God's hands" and not hire any attorney. Church leaders urged them to get a lawyer. Vassilios agreed to represent them free of charge. He did a masterful job during the seven-hour trial as 30 priests dressed in their black robes and kalymauki, the traditional Orthodox priest's headdress, looked on. The priests were there by order of their bishop in an effort to influence the three-judge panel and prosecutor. It was a modern-day inquisition.

The fifteen Pentecostals had shared their faith with others and in some cases had offered free Bibles and books. The bishop charged that these gifts were inducements to get people to change their religion. Under an old Greek law such inducements constitute the crime of "proselytizing." After three hours, the prosecution rested its case. Then the court told the three defense attorneys that they could have 30 minutes for their defense - for all 15 defendants. The chief judge even tried to cancel my expert testimony for lack of time. Nevertheless, Vassilios prevailed on him to allow me four minutes including translation - with the warning: "No sermons!"

When my turn came to testify, I told the court that the freedom of expression I had witnessed in the courtroom that morning, the excitement and emotions displayed by the lawyers, and the freedom to argue and debate were exemplary. I said that my hope was that this freedom of expression would not be limited to the four walls of the courtroom but would be extended to those outside the building. The judges smiled.

I addressed briefly the applicability of the European Human Rights Convention to the issue of Religious Freedom. I also explained that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was leading the legal battle against terrorism, was a highly respected Pentecostal and that Pentecostal and related denominations account for 25-30% of the 700 million Protestants worldwide. My credibility with the court was strengthened by the fact that I had visited Turkey several times in the mid-90s at the request of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew II, the de facto head of the Orthodox Church. The purpose of my missions had been to advocate for religious freedom for all believers in Turkey, including the Eastern Orthodox. In addressing my credentials, it didn't hurt that I was born to a Pentecostal pastor in Sweden, had attended Harvard Law School and participated in 50 religious freedom briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court.

After a one-hour break, the chief judge and prosecutor interrogated all 15 defendants who were thereby able to share their testimonies as to how Jesus Christ had changed their lives. In response to the first defendant's testimony, the chief judge asked: "How can a man's life be changed at 40? Tell us what changes occurred." Similar questions were asked of all the other defendants. There is little doubt that the prosecutor, judges and many of the younger priests were moved by the simplicity and transparency of the testimonies of these rural folk who simply wanted to have fellowship with other believers.

At the end of 15 testimonies, the prosecutor instructed the court that this case was an embarrassment. The defendants had done nothing wrong and must be set free. The Greek interpreter who sat next to me whispered in my ear, "free, free, free..." 15 times. Religious freedom won the day in Greece on December 4, 2001.

*** Notes from Bulgaria and Albania ***

Preceding our visit to Athens, we had an active 48 hours in Bulgaria. Highlights included a meeting with the dean and vice dean of Bulgaria's largest law school. The law school has entered into a ten-year cooperative agreement with our Rule of Law Institute of Bulgaria - the most respected law group in Bulgaria today. This is a remarkable opportunity in this former communist republic. We videotaped members of The Rule of Law Institute singing "God Will Make a Way," "Majesty" and "How Great Thou Art." The Institute expects to have 300 Christian lawyer members by next year's Advocates Europe conference - also remarkable.

After Athens, we spent four days in Albania, a nation where the mere possession of a Bible once meant a 10-year prison term. We met with several Christian lawyers who are united to serve Christ through law. In conjunction with the American Bar Association we co-sponsored a two-day judicial conference on the media and judicial ethics for over 300 judges, plus a one-day session with 65 Supreme Court and other Appeals Court judges. Board member Roger Sherrard organized this conference, our eighth since 1993. The U.S. participants included our friends and colleagues former Washington State Chief Justice Robert Utter and Federal Judge Paul Magnuson, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Judiciary's International Committee. In addition, we had an extremely profitable meeting with the new Director of Religious Affairs and helped him understand the dynamics of church-state relations and religious freedom. Finally, we also spent four hours with Albania's President Rexhep Meidani discussing issues in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life.