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Greek Panel Finds Evangelists Not Guilty of Seeking Converts

Associated Press

Three evangelists who gave a Greek youth a copy of the New Testament have been found innocent of charges that they broke the law by seeking converts in this officially Eastern Orthodox nation.

A three-judge appeals panel this week overturned a lower court ruling that sentenced the missionaries--an American from California, a Greek and one with joint British and New Zealand citizenship--to 3 1/2-year jail terms in 1984 on charges they tried to convert a 16-year-old boy.

The three had been charged under a 1939 anti-proselytizing law enacted by a Greek dictator.

The boy, now an adult, told the court during the seven-hour appeal hearing that the life style of the evangelists had appealed to him because he came from a broken home, but that he did not convert to Protestant Christianity.

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The men were charged after a court had ordered them to stay away from the boy, but contact still occurred and his mother called authorities. The three said the boy kept coming to see them because he was lonely.

“It doesn’t appear that the accused executed the crimes of proselytism and of supporting a minor’s escape,” presiding Judge Dionysios Kondilis told the packed courtroom.

Spectators booed the decision.

Acquitted on Tuesday were Don Stephens, 40, the American director of a San Pedro-based relief organization; Alan Williams, 52, a teacher and pastor with joint British and New Zealand citize1853057129missionary.

“Of course I’m very relieved. I think the verdict will bring security and confidence to all religions in Greece, Orthodoxy as well as evangelicals,” Stephens told the Associated Press.

He is director of Mercy Ships, part of the Christian volunteer organization Youth With a Mission.

All but 2% of Greece’s 10 million people practice Eastern Orthodoxy, the official state religion.

In acquitting the defendants, the court did not rule on the constitutionality of the anti-proselytizing law.

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Stephens and Williams met the boy, Costas Kotopoulos, in 1981 while helping earthquake victims in a town near Athens, and gave him a copy of a modern Greek-language translation of the New Testament.

The men testified that the boy, accompanied by his father, visited the 150-member evangelical group aboard their relief ship while it was being refitted in Greece.

A court banned the visits after the boy’s mother accused them of proselytizing.

Before the ship left Greece in 1982, Stephens gave Kotopoulos the telephone number of Macris, who runs the Hellenic Missionary Center in Athens. Macris said the boy visited him but did not join the center.

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