At the Military Prison of Avlonas
The military prison of Avlonas was a palace compared to the miserable Disciplinary Ward of Corinth. As we entered the outer yard, and I felt much joy at seeing so many Witnesses waving at us. I stepped out of the police wagon, took my heavy suitcases, and was directed toward the prison offices. A young man with blonde hair was sitting behind the desk. Next to him was a man with darker skin. They were both dressed as civilians. They inspected my folder and then asked me in a serious tone, “Why do you refuse to join the army? Don’t you want to serve our country?”
“No! This is not the case! Simply because my Christian-trained conscience does not allow me such action,” I answered, a response I had heard a thousand times.
“Are you saying that we have no conscience?” they asked, precisely what I was expecting to hear.
“No, I did not say such a thing. You have trained your conscience differently!” I replied.
Of course, I did not realize that I was simply attempting to avoid the issue. In reality, as a Witness, I believed that all soldiers belonged to the opposing camp of Satan, and they deserved to be destroyed in Armageddon. Thus, this was not issue an of different consciences as I told them, but of different camps. Subconsciously, I considered them worthy of death! They continued to question me, and I responded as a well-trained student. At some point the blonde one stood up and welcomed me with a broad smile and a handshake.
“Welcome, brother!” We are Elders of the prison church!” he said and introduced himself. The other one did the same, while I was laughing mechanically in disbelief. Obviously, they not only amused themselves by posing these questions, but they also measured the quality of the new inmates by doing so. The administration had entrusted them with some routine bureaucratic tasks.
I entered my new environment with Nikos’ accompaniment (this was the name of the dark-complected one). I imagined the interior of the jail to be much different from what I actually faced when I entered the main building. The picture I had painted in my imagination was of a very narrow hallway with cells on either side. But what I saw in front of me was a huge, open space with three-story-high ceilings. The first two stories were lined with doors on both sides. Dozens of inmates were roaming freely in this entire space and in its yards. The only reminder of what I had originally imagined the place to look like was the iron bars everywhere.
While walking along the staircase, I could differentiate the Witnesses from the criminals by their clothing. The criminals wore uniforms, while the Witnesses were dressed in civilian clothes. I followed Nikos to the second level to see my new cell. It was numbered Z7. It was one of the larger cells and housed seven other “brothers.” I was informed later on that just about all the new inmates started their sentence in large cells, but eventually they would be transferred to smaller and quieter ones. Nikos showed me a bunk bed and told me that I would be sleeping on the top part.
“Do you fall out of your bed at night?” he asked.
“I don’t know, I’ve never slept on a high bed,” I said.
“Would you like to switch? My bed is at the bottom,” he said.
I gladly accepted, not realizing that this was a sacrifice on his part. The lower beds were the more privileged, as I found out later.
The one year I spent at MPA was a year of social maturity and growth for me. I had the opportunity to meet people with varying personalities and every sort of idiosyncrasies from all over the country. Hundreds of others, like me, lived in a closed space, and everyone had to learn to tolerate each other and to cohabitate. In a short span of time, I saw and experienced everything Stamatis forewarned me about. I met excellent young men of my faith, but who did not differ in the least from those I used to call “worldly.” I met many groups of good people, but also cliques who imposed themselves in an anti-Christian manner, promoting their “own” even to the highest levels of the Organization. There were Witnesses who partied at the expense of those of their own faith, and Witnesses who did all they could to help others. There were ethical and homosexual Witnesses, blasphemer and polite Witnesses. Some would make the best impression everywhere they went, and some others the worst, like a group five “brothers” who read pornography at the Disciplinary Ward, masturbated publicly, cursed, smoked, and vandalized the premises often. Naturally they were punished at the MPA, but at least one of them remained uncorrected up until his release.
Time passed very slowly, miserably slow, as I crossed off one-by-one the days on my calendar. My only consolation was the monthly visit by my fiancée and the weekly visits by my mother. Luckily, being the first-born son in my family, I only had to serve one half of the sentence, compared to the full sentence served by others.
In the beginning, I tried with much zeal to take advantage of every moment in jail by devoting time to studying. As time went on, however, I began to tire myself out. Despite this, I managed to read for several hours each day. My Bible was full with notes on the sides of its pages. My goal was to record all the interpretations of the verses, as published in the magazines of the Organization. This was a common practice among the Witnesses. During our meetings, we studied a booked entitled Worship with the purpose of making the Witnesses enter much deeper in the knowledge of their dogmas. While all other books provided easy answers, this book challenged you to think. I can honestly say that this book, in spite of its doctrinal errors, made me much more conscientious about my faith. For the first time, I paid great attention to the area of conscience. I practically memorized what the Watchtower had written in recent years on the subject. I even proceed to write my first personal study on the topic: “Why I refused military service.” Not withstanding the many reasons I referred to, today I know that there was only one real: I believed that I belonged to a different camp.
In my stay in the cell Z7, a certain matter intervened in which I was involved. The jail administration, during its inspections, demanded all beds to be made with the provided military blanket. This was expected because according to the Greek government, we were considered soldiers, regardless of whether or not we were in denial of this identity. Thus, this was presented from our Elders to the Governing Body of the Witnesses: using the military blanket is like an acceptance of the military identity. The Governing Body responded that this would not be a problem, since we already had clarified our position by choosing to be in jail. Some of us, however, were not satisfied by this outcome. We saw this response as a compromise, and since our conscience was not in full accord, we refused to make use of the military blanket. Only now, however, we did not have to deal with the administration, but with our own Elders. When our decision to refuse the military was made known, the type of pressure imposed was unprecedented. The Elder passed by our cell daily insisting, “The blanket will be used! The Governing Body allowed it!”
We continued to react negatively, presenting them with articles from the Watchtower, claiming that “in matters of conscience, no one can intervene, and the decision ultimately remains in the hands of the conscience-challenged individual.”
I remember my precise answer, “I don’t care what the Governing Body said! From the moment I consider something to be bad, IT IS BAD. Even if Christ himself (whom I considered a creation at the time) would tell me that it is permitted, I would not do something contradictory to my conscience!”
Not withstanding all this, when the day of inspection came, I may have been the only one of the objectors who decided to obey the Elder. In the aftermath of this move, I felt defeated. I felt as though Satan had found a way to indirectly make me confess the very thing I had refused and was doing time for. As a result, I announced to Nikos (the Elder) that this was the first and the last time I would compromise. During the next inspection, I would not use this blanket either. The following day, all the objectors, including myself, found ourselves in a new wing of the jail called the Recovery Ward. We would no longer present a problem since the administration did not expect the inhabitants of this wing to use military blankets. I stayed there until my transfer to the jail of Kassandra. The Recovery Ward was the quietest section of jail. The permanent noise prevalent in the regular cells was gone.
We also had other advantages in this facility. Most importantly we had private, clean bathrooms with a toilet, the lack of which was a real problem in the previous cells. There the toilet was inside the cells and its use was problematic. In our new facility, the toilets were outside of the cells and in the Recovery Ward, they never locked the doors. We were forced to lock our door though. We even requested that the administration fence us in with iron bars because during our absence, the criminals would enter and steal our shoes. The Recovery Ward had three rooms: one for our meetings, one for ping-pong, and one for television. I will never forget the Homeric battles over which ping-pong move to watch and the many rats that seemed to favor this particular space.
The spiritual state of some Witnesses can be surmised by the following incident. One evening when we gathered for our meeting, the room was half empty. Being rather curious, they sent some of us to the cells to see what was happening. What we saw made us laugh and worry at the same time. Some were asleep, others were playing chess, some were reading newspapers, and others were listening to music or eating. After this intervention, however, those of some sincerity were compelled to join us at the meeting.
In the MPA, there was a disfellowshipped Witness, for reasons unknown to me. This man, although disfellowshipped, still refused military service at registration. Thus, he was sent to MPA, and after he spent some time in the criminal quarters, the Witnesses accommodated him in a cell. While there for many months, and up until his re-admittance in the Organization, all the other Witnesses refused to speak to him. I saw what he was going through and felt sorry for him, as did many others, but there was nothing we could do about his isolation. The cruel and relentless disciplinary system of the Organization was far worse than those used by the government.
In the beginning, my job was to mop. Later on, I was in charge of peeling potatoes for the common meals. By working in this manner, I was earning days off my sentence so I could be released from jail earlier. The Recovery Ward was quiet and more conducive to reading. It housed a library with a variety of books, and the religious section had some Orthodox anti-heretical books. One day I decided to read an Orthodox book pertaining to my religion. Afterwards, I found out this was not one of the better books. There were far more appropriate books compared to the one I selected. But even through this book, the Holy Spirit carefully began to prepare my future exodus from the heresy. The book included the correspondence of the Orthodox in charge of the anti-heretical struggle alongside the correspondence of the people of my faith. Their responses humiliated the Witness writers. Reading this book, I was scandalized to such a point as to assume that the letters of the Witnesses were mere forgeries, especially since I had no trust in the Orthodox writers whatsoever because I considered them all liars. This was even truer for this specific writer whom I despised because of an incident that had occurred a few months prior.
From long ago, I knew about a radio program where this man spoke against my faith on a certain hour everyday. I was always curious to hear what he had to say against us , but because I always worked and attended school, I didn’t get to hear the program. In jail, however, I had the opportunity to tune in. One day I remembered this program and turned on the radio just as it began. The topic was about how the Watchtower Organization was a share-holding, profitable organization. If the host’s arguments were sound, he would get my attention, and I would listen to him regularly. Unfortunately, however, he was trying to prove this by misinterpreting the title of an article of the Watchtower magazine, which said, “Become share-holders of the Kingdom!”
“Here you have it,” the host of the radio program said. “Inside this issue of the Watchtower magazine they are advertising for others to become share-holders of the Wall Street share holding company of Watchtower. I turned off the radio infuriated. I remembered the article well, and I knew that it had no relation to share holders of companies, but it spoke about a share in the blessings provided by God and awaited by the Witnesses. From that point on, I never had any desire to listen to him again, and I considered him a liar and slanderer.
Consequently, much curiosity was needed on my part to decide to read his book. Even though I rejected it, believing it to be full of lies, I was unsuccessful in rejecting one verse pertaining to 2nd Corinthians 6:7. This verse stated “…by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of the truth, by the power of God….” If the Holy Spirit was the power of God, as I believed as a Witness, then this verse would not be written this way! In a summary of dissimilar characteristics, the verse differentiates very clearly between the Holy Spirit and the power of God! This verse showed very clearly that the Holy Spirit was definitely not the power of God. I searched all issues of the Watchtower, but I did not find an answer. Thus, I kept this verse in my mind, waiting for the day that God would give me a satisfactory answer.
One of my hobbies from a young age was to read scientific journals. One of my favorite subjects was Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. So one day while lying in bed in the Recovery Ward, I was reading about the essence of space-time. I was intrigued by the fact that space and time are expandable elements, much like a rubber band, and they are dependent on the matter they enclose. However, I was even more intrigued by the belief that space and time were created simultaneously with the universe. I remembered at some point when I was younger, I had asked one of the Elders the following childish question: “Where was God before the creation of the Universe?” He gave such a ridiculous answer, that even as a child, I considered it foolish. I had placed this question on the back burner all these years without discovering a satisfying answer.
On this particular day, however, my question returned more forcefully: “Where and when was God before He created the Universe? And did ‘where’ and ‘when’ even exist?” But now, for the first time, I felt that I had the background to give an answer. I began to delve noetically into the concept of God’s pre-eternity. Immediately I thought, “Since space and time are dependent on the material make-up of the world and they have their beginning from the creation of the universe, then God is ‘outside’ of space and time and space-time is His creation. Before the Universe, ‘where’ and ‘when’ simply did not exist. Only God existed.”
And while I could think so many things on this topic (all of which deeply touched me as I began to discover them later), my mind (by the grace of God) followed this train of thought, shocking my innermost being: “But then, if God made everything through Jesus Christ His Word, then He made space-time through Jesus Christ!!! I ran and opened the Holy Scripture to John 1:3 where it says about Jesus Christ: “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made!” I panicked!!! “But then – I thought – Jesus Christ is also the Creator of time! This means that He has no beginning!”
Now I understood why the “worldly” believe in the Trinity! If this were known by all those who had previously tried to discuss Orthodoxy with me, they would have made things difficult for me! I pondered, “There must be some mistake in this conclusion, because if He had no beginning, He would not be a Son! Every son has his beginning from his parents! But if the Logos (Word) has a beginning, then it is not possible for Him to have created time!” I thought about this for a long time, unable to find a solution. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not know that the Son had His beginning from the Father in terms of the cause! Another source for this confusion was the verse that I had been taught, which stated that Christ is “the beginning of the creation of God,” and I interpreted this as “the first creation.” I did not realize that the Word “arche” in this context means “authority.”
So at the time, I improvised a certain theory to satisfy the impasse I had found myself in. In my innermost being, however, I sensed that this could not stand up to serious critical thought. Thus, I was tormented because of this discovery, that some subconscious self-defense mechanism had removed it from my thoughts for many years. But I continued my studies and my daily activities, without losing much sleep over whether or not the Lord Jesus Christ had a beginning. Unfortunately, just a few weeks before I got word of a new transfer to the agricultural prison of Kassandra, jail got the best of me, and I began to have a variety of psychological problems. Day-by-day my depression was escalating to the point that I began to understand the phrase, “I’m about to lose my mind.”
If my transfer to Kassandra had been delayed any longer, the damage could have been irreparable. At the necessary time, God’s providence worked in such a way that I soon found myself in a new environment, which quickly cured my psychological problems. Now, after all these years, those unpleasant events have been erased from my mind and only the good memories remain. The only exception is the lingering image of my disabled mother, as she limped away from jail, permanently tired and grief-striken.
 The authority of God.