During The Spanish Inquisition, heretics and those who refused to follow Catholicism could be burned at the stake.Wellcome Library, London

Content Note: This article contains discussion of homophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.

“When I lay my fingers on you, you won’t be getting back up from the floor,” my father uttered to me, while my mother stood by.

What had I done to warrant such a threat? I had written an article denouncing the growing extremism within the Greek Orthodox community that I had lived in and followed since childhood. I had published the article during the first peak of COVID-19 in England. The latest COVID-19 conspiracy theories, laden with homophobia and misogyny, circulating in parts of the Greek Orthodox community had been a pill too bitter to swallow.

“COVID-19 is God’s punishment for gays and abortions”

“COVID-19 is God’s punishment for gays and abortions,” my uncle announced on FaceTime to my mother, who echoed his sentiment. The fact that I only rolled my eyes to this is testament to the banality of such a comment in the more radicalised sections of the community – with which members of my family identify. My uncle’s comment was almost unoriginal given the religious mantras that had echoed across the congregations of my childhood. Growing up caught between Greek Orthodox communities from both halves of the Midlands had given me continuous exposure to a discourse that sounded out of tune with my liberal Britain.

The last twenty years have shown me that the Greek Orthodox Church is rarely too shy to ‘muse’ on the state of the nation. A Sunday sermon would not be complete without a few words of ‘concern’ about pro-LGBT laws or watery-eyed nostalgia for the days when wearing lipstick warranted a good stoning.

The deep-rooted dogma that has wrapped its tentacles around sections of the Greek Orthodox community goes beyond casual prejudice. Its silent persistence and ability to penetrate even young minds is nothing short of insidious. Was it not at Sunday Greek school where I learnt that gay feelings are the work of the devil? It is hard to deny that this type of teaching is at odds with our liberal democracy.

"Dogma can survive in a liberal society so long as its disciples uphold a strict code of silence."

That being said, how can it be stopped if this hate speech is never reported in the first place? As we have seen with other forms of extremism, dogma can survive in a liberal society so long as its disciples uphold a strict code of silence. Our multicultural Britain is only as great as the breadth of its plurality – but this plurality is threatened when the communities it accommodates are radicalised. As an ex-member, I can testify that swathes of the Greek Orthodox community are free-falling into the arms of clerical fanaticism.

I have seen numerous examples of this phenomenon but there is one instance which is particularly memorable to me: attending a pilgrimage to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Birmingham – to kiss a relic of the skull of John the Baptist that had made a rare visit to the United Kingdom. I was sixteen, restless and bored as I sat through the sermon given by a senior member of the clergy. My ears soon pricked up when I began to hear the contents of the speech. Aside from the usual rants against rampant homosexuality brainwashing our children and scandalous lipstick-wearing women, there was a new line in the lyric of the Greek Orthodox Church. “The Jews have created ISIS. They are doing it to dominate the Middle East and rebuild the Temple of Solomon.”

There were at least fifty people at that pilgrimage. All of them nodded along and would have returned to their homes, schools and offices the next day, the Father’s speech firmly in their heads as they walked beside their Jewish friends, classmates and colleagues.


Mountain View

Ritual and religion in the city of Cambridge

It is not just Greek Orthodox clergymen uttering these theories, nor is it only the Jews and the gays that are in the firing line. Orthodox Christian supremacy has another target: Muslims. Mother taught me that the prophet Muhammed was inspired by the devil, who appeared in the form of the angel Gabriel frothing at the mouth, and wrote the Quran to spread his demonic teachings. This was taught to her by her brother, who learnt it from a Greek Orthodox priest.

We are familiar with the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to religion. There are thousands of Greek Orthodox churchgoers and clergymen who do not take part in the kind of homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic discourse I have described. But while it is tempting to discount it as a frightening but insignificant anomaly in an otherwise peaceful religious community, Greek Orthodox extremism has ultimately remained unfettered for years. Political manifestos have dedicated entire sections to the elimination of so-called ‘radical Islam’ - by comparison, Orthodox Christian dogma appears untouched.

Meanwhile, the swelling of radicalised fringes in the Greek Orthodox community of my youth, the indoctrination of its children to despise homosexuality and to beware the Jew or Muslim, is as antithetical to a liberal democracy as any fundamentalist teaching.

If we are waiting for moderate members of the Greek Orthodox community to speak out, we may be in for quite a wait. Opening my mouth provoked a death threat from my father, cries of heresy from my mother, an array of messages from my grandmother denouncing homosexuality as ‘a disease’ and more. Had I stayed for the encore, I am sure that the religious authorities within the community would have been summoned to reign in my troubling utterances.

This response to a moderate voice can only be indicative of the power of religious dogma. If the slim liberal majority does not hold out, if the expanding radicalised sections successfully take hold, the Greek Orthodox community in which I was raised will become defined by the latter.

I have seen first-hand that the same extremism that fuelled the likes of Ratko Mladić and his Greek Volunteer Guard, murderers sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church, has not disappeared from my former religious community. It lives on in parents, uncles and priests, who swallow and regurgitate religious dogma and clerical fanaticism to give meaning to a world that is far more complex than they would have us believe.

"Fanatics are sowing toxic discourse into the congregations of my youth while performing the sign of the cross."

The Greek Orthodox community is treading a dangerous path into the arms of religious extremism. Fanatics are sowing toxic discourse into the congregations of my youth while performing the sign of the cross. If left unchallenged, it is beyond reasonable doubt that a moderate religious community will become disfigured by ultras, people bent on segregating their brethren from the rest of the country. Present in our schools, offices and on our streets but separated in mind and spirit by propaganda that borders on the medieval.