[MGSA-L] Church and state in Greece - A new concordat?

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Sat Nov 22 12:55:37 PST 2014

Church and state in Greece - A new concordat?


Nov 21st 2014, 14:48 BY B.C. | THESSALONIKI

IN THE churches of this country's second city, some of which date from the
Byzantine era, there was a decent turnout of worshippers this morning for
one of the most enigmatic and mystical rites of the Greek church calendar:
a service commemorating the moment when the Virgin Mary, as a young girl,
is said to have gone to live in the Jerusalem Temple and prepared to become
a new kind of "temple" herself by carrying a divine child in her womb.

The liturgical poetry was reassuringly familiar, but there is nervousness
in the chilly autumn air. Apart from the personal hardship that many
church-goers are facing because of a lingering economic crisis, they face a
new uncertainty in the coming months—the possible advent of a leftist
government which is committed to separating church and state in what has
hitherto been one of the most "theocratic" countries in Europe. If, as
seems very possible, the current legislature fails to muster the necessary
votes to elevate a new state president early next year, there will be early
parliamentary elections, and the leftist Syriza party—led by a veteran of
the communist youth movement, Alexis Tsipras—could well top the poll.

At full stretch, severing the connection between church and state would
presumably mean: i) stripping the Orthodox church of its constitutionally
guaranteed role as the "prevailing religion" in Greece; ii) ending the
arrangement where priests and many other people who work for the church are
on the state pay-roll; iii) tidying up and in some cases sequestering the
church's vast and ill-defined property portfolio; iv) putting a stop to the
prayers and confessional instruction which are part of the daily diet for
almost all pupils at state schools; v) ending all tax exemptions for
religious institutions. Certainly there are plenty of secular leftists in
Greece who would love to do all that. At a time when Greece's old
left-right fissures are widening again, there is lots of anti-clerical
feeling among socialists who suspect the church leadership of colluding
with the political right or even far-right. But in reality, say people
close to the world of church-state relations, the old ties are loosening
already and this process might not accelerate all that much under a
hard-leftist government.

Already, under a conservative-led government, the rate at which priests are
being ordained, and hence joining the state pay-roll, has slowed to a
trickle—not for any ideological reason but because of
internationally-mandated budget cuts. And the old practice of inculcating
school-children with Orthodox Christian doctrine is giving way to something
more like "religious studies" as classrooms fill up with migrants from
places ranging from Albania to China.

And for several reasons, a Syriza-led government would hold probably hold
back from a head-on confrontation with the church. One is that the church
has played a big role in providing food, medicine and other basics to
victims of the economic crisis who would otherwise be desperate; Syriza
might not like that state of affairs, but it can't be changed overnight.
Another is that changing any part of the Greek constitution is a burdensome
procedure—it can't be done in the lifetime of a single parliament—and
stripping out all the provisions which privilege the church and various
monasteries would take an enormous amount of political energy and time. Yet
another is that Greece has a small but modestly flourishing tradition of
"religious leftism"—people who combine religious faith with radical
political ideas—and that is one of the many impulses that Syriza seeks to

A new biography has just appeared of one of Greece's better-known champions
of the political left. A turbulent cleric called Father George Pirounakis
who opposed the right-wing dictatorship of 1967-1974, supported student
uprisings against the junta, and later demanded that bishops who had
succoured the tyrants should be held to account. During the 1980s, he was
temporarily suspended from ecclesiastical life because he agreed to help an
initiative by a Socialist government that would have stripped the church of
some of its land. By the end of his life in 1988, he was disappointed by
the fact that church and state leadership had settled their differences by
striking a cosy political bargain that left the property holdings intact.
Such bargains have been struck many times in the past, and the chances are
that there will be plenty more.

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com
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