A Greek appeals court has overturned a lower court’s conviction of three Protestant Christians on charges of proselytism. However, the court upheld the constitutionality of Greek laws that limit the activities of religious minorities.

Greek pastor Costas Macris and missionaries Don Stephens and Alan Williams were found guilty of proselytism in 1984 and were sentenced to three-and-one-half years in prison. Their sentences were postponed pending the outcome of their appeal. Stephens, a U.S. citizen, and Williams, a Briton, work for Mercy Ships, a California-based maritime relief agency. Macris is president of the Hellenic Missionary Union.

The proselytism charges grew out of a friendship between the defendants and a young Greek named Kostas Kotopoulos. In 1981, Stephens and Williams befriended Kotopoulos, then 16. They eventually gave him a modern-language Greek New Testament and directed him to a youth ministry headed by Macris. The youth responded to the gospel, but he maintained his membership in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Charges were brought against the defendants by Kotopoulos’s mother, Katerina Douga. During the appeals court trial, Douga testified that the defendants saturated her son with ideas contrary to the teachings of the Greek Orthodox Church. However, the court found insufficient evidence to uphold the proselytism conviction against the men.

The court’s ruling represents “a major breakthrough on behalf of religious freedom for minority religious groups in Greece,” Macris said. “It sets a precedent that the handing out of Bibles can no longer be construed as an illegal means of proselytism.”

Virginia Tsotherou, a member of the Greek Parliament, testified on behalf of the defendants. She said the Greek Orthodox Church should not feel threatened by the ministries of Protestant Christians. She also criticized the law under which the three men were prosecuted.

“It’s embarrassing to us and we must change it,” she said. “If you bring down a guilty sentence on these men because of this law, it will be a shameful day for Greece.”

In contrast, a priest and a Greek Orthodox theologian testified that the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are fundamental and that there is no ground for cooperation.

Greece’s laws against proselytism, enacted in 1938, make it difficult for non-Eastern Orthodox Christians to carry out any ministries away from church properties. Critics say the proselytism laws violate religious freedom clauses in several human rights declarations signed by Greece.

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