June 3, 2008 / 10:30 AM / 9 years ago

Greece's first gay weddings defy church and state

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's first gay weddings were held on Tuesday when two couples, abetted by a sympathetic local mayor, defied the threat of criminal charges and the wrath of the Orthodox church to tie the knot on a tiny Aegean island.

One gay and one lesbian couple took advantage of the failure of Greek civil law to specify gender in matrimony and took vows at municipal offices on the southeast Aegean island of Tilos.

"We are very moved and happy that we found someone to make our dream come true," said Evangelia Vlami, one of the newlyweds and spokeswoman for Greece's Gay and Lesbian Community (OLKE). "I am proud to be the first Greek Lesbian to get married".

A Greek Orthodox priest described their homosexuality as a curse and the mayor of a neighboring island said the sight of same-sex couples would upset "good families" on their holidays.

Vlami told Reuters her wedding took place early in the morning and two gay men followed soon after. Details had been kept under wraps until all official documentation was signed for fear the ceremonies might have been disrupted.

The weddings were held only a few days after a senior Greek prosecutor said the mayor of Tilos would face criminal charges if he officiated; but the mayor, Tassos Aliferis, told Reuters he was determined to defend what he saw as basic human rights.

The Justice Ministry said the marriages were illegal, as laws referred only to heterosexual couples, and all involved would face charges.

"There is no legal framework allowing homosexual marriages in Greece," Justice Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis said in a statement. "Attempts to perform civil ceremonies among gay couples are illegal and such 'marriages' void."

Church Opposition

But OLKE said it hoped the weddings would help change attitudes towards homosexuals in Greece, which has long preferred to turn a blind eye to homosexuality rather than acknowledge gay rights.

"This is terrible," the mayor of the neighboring island of Rhodes, Hatzis Hatziefthimiou, told Ant1 TV. "We have good families coming here for holidays, we can't have them coming to our beaches and seeing these kind of couples."

While many European Union countries have established legislation allowing gay marriage or "registered partnership" rights to same-sex couples, neither are allowed in Greece.

The Netherlands was the first EU country to offer full civil marriage rights to gay couples in 2001 and Belgium followed in 2003. Spain legalized gay marriage in 2005, despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.

Tuesday's weddings drew immediate fire from the Orthodox church, which strongly opposes homosexuality.

"Homosexuality is a curse, a deadly sin, it goes against psychological and biological normality," Father Stylianos Karpathiou told state NET TV.

additional reporting by Lila Chotzoglou and Tatiana Fragou; editing by Ralph Boulton

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