Greek cult holds 'forbidden' ceremony at Zeus temple

Athens, Greece - Centuries after it crumbled into disuse, the Roman-era Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens resounded again with ancient Greek chants as a group of tunic-clad worshippers gathered to pray for a peaceful hosting of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Flouting a ban from the Greek culture ministry -- which forbids ceremonies of any sort at archaeological sites -- some 30 worshippers chanted odes to Zeus, Aphrodite and other ancient Greek gods with dozens of startled tourists watching, and a small number of police stationed nearby.

"O Athena, may the next Olympics be held as they should be, as the gods desire," chanted a tall, long-haired man in a grey cape and sunglasses, holding a double snake-headed sceptre aloft.

The group said it had initially secured permission to hold the ceremony, which attracted around 300 spectators, but the culture ministry subsequently changed its mind.

Accompanied by a lawyer, the practicioners had to negotiate with site guards for an hour before being allowed to bring their gear inside.

A senior ministry official told AFP that the authorities were prepared to allow them access to the temple without ancient garb and would allow them to chant as long as there were no instruments involved.

"We do not intend to repress free speech... but archaeological sites are nobody's private theatre," said archaeologist Nikoletta Valakou, head of the culture ministry department supervising the site.

The worshippers belong to The Holy Association of Greek Ancient Religion Believers (Ellinais), one of several small groups who closely study and adopt aspects of ancient Greek religion and culture.

Their activities are nearly unnoticed by most other Greeks.

In a ceremony reminiscent of the lighting of the Olympic flame held every two years in Olympia, southwestern Greece, the group released two white doves to fly above the second-century AD temple, poured water on the ground as an offering to the gods and held a ritual wedding between two participants.

"This is a universal wish for the peaceful hosting of the Olympics," chanted group leader Doreta Peppa, dressed as a red-robed priestess.

"We worship nature and honour the ancient Greek gods," she later told reporters. "Some three percent of Greeks share our views, but they're afraid to speak out."

The Ellinais group follows a calendar marking time from the first ancient Olympics of 776 BC.

It also wants to rebuild all ancient temples and make ancient Greek the official language of the country.

"We want to be able to hold ceremonies at ancient temples... This obsession of treating them as mere monuments must stop," Peppa said. "The Greek parliament is also a monument, but it continues to function. So should this temple."

The group had brought security of their own, of sorts -- a handful of men in archaic armour stood to attention around the participants.

"We belong to an honour guard that assists all such ceremonies, wherever we are needed," said Thanassis Agiassas, a 45-year-old fitness instructor from northern Greece.

"We make this armour on our own, using film props from France and India... It's a matter of culture for me, I want to keep this contact with our ancestors," he added.

"These are not serious people...they're not so different from fanatical Orthodox Christians," said Valakou, the ministry archaeologist.

In a statement issued after the ceremony, the culture ministry said members of the group attacked and threatened Valakou and the guards on their way out of the temple.

Steps would be taken to prevent similar "illegal" events in future, it added.

Modern Greece has strong links with its classical heritage, but the country's Orthodox Christian faith is equally powerful, and the influential Greek Orthodox Church treats ancient religious practices as pagan.

Ellinais is a legally-recognised association, but the state has yet to recognise its right to hold religious practices, Peppa said.

One of Athens' most imposing archaeological monuments, the Temple of Zeus was completed on the orders of Roman emperor Hadrian, and once housed a colossal gold-and-ivory statue honouring the ancient Greek pantheon's leading deity.