ATHENS, Greece – The mayor of a tiny Aegean Sea island was charged with breach of duty after conducting Greece's first same-sex marriage ceremonies Tuesday, in defiance of a prosecutor's order calling such nuptials illegal.
Tilos Mayor Tasos Aliferis held the civil ceremonies for two Greek gay and lesbian couples shortly after dawn, provoking the wrath of conservative church officials and the country's justice minister.
"This is a huge step forward for human rights in Greece," said Evangelia Vlami, one of the newlyweds. "It is a very important day for us," she told The Associated Press.
Her marriage was held in front of around 30 people on Tilos, about 210 nautical miles southeast of Athens.
"We got positive feedback from the local people we saw, and local people signed as witnesses, which is very important for us," said Vlami, who is a spokeswoman for the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece.
It was not immediately clear, however, if the marriages were legal, and the issue could end up in the courts.
Hours after the ceremonies, a prosecutor on the nearby island of Rhodes charged Aliferis with breach of duty — a misdemeanor which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Justice Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis said the two marriages were illegal and invalid.
"There is no legal framework allowing same-sex marriages to be held in Greece," he said. "Attempts to conduct marriages involving same-sex couples are illegal."
"Social issues and problems should be handled responsibly and seriously ... and not with arbitrary acts," Hatzigakis said.
Both couples sought to take advantage of a loophole in a 26-year-old law that does not specify gender in civil weddings.
But Greece's top public prosecutor issued a directive Friday to prosecutors saying same-sex marriages were illegal. Supreme Court prosecutor Giorgos Sanidas said the directive was based on an article in Greece's constitution to protect family rights, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Vlami said Aliferis' prosecution was "an attempt at intimidation, to terrorize people and keep the Church happy."
"Let the minister tell us what law prevents gay couples from marrying — it does not exist," she said. "I believe that very soon we will get involved in court fights, either because registrars, tax officials or banks challenge our marriage."
Aliferis said he stood by his decision to perform the marriages.
"When someone tries to enforce human rights, he cannot be persecuted for that," he told state NET television.
The country's powerful Orthodox Church has expressed strong objections to gay marriage.
One bishop on denounced what he described as a wedding of "humanoid couples."
"Who can guarantee me that in the future we will not see a wedding between a man and his dog?" Amvrosios, bishop of Kalavryta and Aigialeia, said in a posting on his Internet blog.
Gay groups in Greece were angered after the conservative government left gays out of plans to create civil partnerships that would improve financial rights for unmarried couples.