Stronger than Politics: The Resilience of Orthodoxy in Greece
Alessio Giussani 26 March 2020

On Egnatia, a congested street that cuts the center of Thessaloniki horizontally, Greece’s second-largest city, packed buses are the norm at any time of the day. Between the Arch of Galerius and the bottle-shaped Aristotelous Square, buses pass no less than five churches, and in front of each one, it is usual to see passengers, not only older generations, crossing themselves before getting back to their conversations, their thoughts, or their struggle to avoid being squashed by the crowd. Orthodox icons above the windscreen next to the driver are also common, along with Greek flags. Clearly, religious sentiment is still a thing for the Greeks.

The 2018 attempt to enshrine religious neutrality in the Constitution provoked a fracture within the Greek Church between its leader, Archbishop Ieronymos, who sponsored the deal, and the rest of the Holy Synod, the Council of Metropolitan Bishops resulting in a final rejection of the deal. After last July’s national election, which brought the center-right New Democracy (ND) back into power concluding the SYRIZA era, the Church can count on a more friendly government, but its position remains precarious: the years of the economic crisis have not left the Church unaffected.

Whenever religious matters come up in the Greek political debate, citizens respond with high levels of polarization. Two decades ago, when the socialist government led by PASOK set out to remove religious affiliation from identity cards for privacy reasons, Aristotelous Square could not contain the multitude gathered around the then-Archbishop Christodoulos to protest the bill – which was eventually approved.

That was not the last time the Church meddled in matters without strict religious relevance. During the bargaining process that led, in June 2018, to the much-discussed Prespa Agreement between Greece and the country now known as the Republic of North Macedonia, the Church adopted a radically critical stance against the SYRIZA government. The Church was worried that once the name deal was ratified, the former Yugoslavian country would reinforce its claim on the “Church of Macedonia”.

But the reasons why the Church was critical of the Macedonian deal were not strictly ecclesiastical, as the Holy Synod made clear by declaring that the Church has fought since antiquity for the Greekness of Macedonia with the blood of its clergy and its words”. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pushed the deal through, and paid the price at the polls: he lost the European and the national elections last May and July, respectively.


Orthodox “Greekness” and Western modernity

Greece is the fourth most religious country in Europe, second only to Romania among the 27 members of the European Union, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. 49% of Greek adults declare themselves “highly religious”. But Orthodoxy in Greece is not simply about metaphysical beliefs: it is about being Greek.

The identification between religion and “Greekness” dates back to the establishment of the modern Greek State after the revolution against the Ottomans. To increase its symbolic legitimation, the State did not hesitate to put the Church under its institutional control. The autonomy of the Church of Greece from the Constantinople-based ecumenical patriarchate was thus established in 1833.

Since then, the Church has often acted as a secular actor able to shape social consent, and its connection to the Greek national identity has been portrayed as a timeless truism. In spite of its ideological influence, however, the physical presence of the Church has been less dominant. The State has unilaterally taken over 96% of the assets the Church had accumulated during the Ottoman domination. The wages and pensions the State pays to the clergy signal the lack of financial self-sufficiency of the Church.

As for its ideological stance, the Greek Church is not simplistically hostile to the West, although European integration, with Greece being the first Orthodox member of the European Community, joining in 1981, has often been portrayed as a steamroller likely to annihilate the authentic Greek identity.

Orthodoxy has been critical towards western modernity, but not openly opposed to it: “First Greek Orthodox, then Europeans!”, screamed the crowd during the rally against the exclusion of religious affiliation from ID cards back in 2000. Even now, most Greeks keep considering themselves pro-European, while still being Orthodox.

In its own way, Greek Orthodoxy is trying to cope with the secularization of society and with European integration. Even during the hardest moments of the crisis, the Church put the blame on the Greek ruling class rather than on the international creditors. In 2015, Archbishop Ieronymos, usually less assertive than his predecessor Christodoulos when it comes to political matters, declared himself in favor of the bailout plan imposed by the IMF and its EU partners.

“Rather than in opposition to Western European modernity, the Orthodox Church of Greece is in many ways its offspring,” says Sotiris Mitralexis, teaching fellow at the University of Athens and expert on State-Church relationships in Greece. In fact, the autonomy of the Greek Church has been established by the state apparatus. The Church’s most controversial elements in particular, such as nationalism and occasional racism, stem from its modern genealogy. And when the time of the decision comes, the Church adopts a pro-European stance, mainly in alignment with the State.


Delaying secularization

In spite of its attempts to cope with the changing times, the Church is often accused of feeding an over-traditionalistic, nationalistic discourse. Historically, the Greek Church has been closer to right-wing political forces; this also was the case during the years of the military junta that took power in a coup d’état in 1967 and replaced the existing Church hierarchy. When democracy was restored in 1974, most of those religious officials who had cooperated with the dictatorship were neither persecuted nor displaced.

In more recent years, the Church has been ambiguous in its stance toward the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (GD) party. While some Orthodox officials condemned the GD’s racist discourse and violent methods, no official stigmatization has come from the Church, even when the neo-Nazi party embraced the defense of Orthodoxy as a pillar of its propaganda. The lack of a clear stance against the party contributed to the “normalization” of the GD.

The Church’s conservatism has also occasionally delayed the introduction of much-needed reforms. Such is the case with cremation, legal in Greece since 2006 but steadfastly ostracized by the Church. Religious authorities have repeatedly opposed the construction of crematoriums, despite the fact that graves in cemeteries are owned only for a limited number of years before exhumation, and that the crisis has made it increasingly necessary for many Greeks to have a less expensive and yet respectful way of taking care of their dead.

The Church has reiterated it sees cremation as no different than waste recycling and still refuses to hold funerals for those who are cremated. The country’s first crematorium (privately owned) came into operation in Ritsona, two hours away from Athens, in late 2019. Until very recently, according to ERT, around 4,000 bodies were sent from Greece to Sofia, Bulgaria to be cremated each year.

As for civil unions, for years the Church has opposed the extension of this privilege to homosexual couples, which was approved by the parliament in 2015. Even more controversies were raised by the gender ID bill, which allows citizens to self-identify as male or female from the age of 15. The Synod stated that the law would increase mental disturbances.

Homophobic and racist voices among Orthodox hierarchs are particularly problematic because the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ is recognized as the country’s prevailing religion by Article 3 of the Constitution. Freedom of religious conscience, however, is guaranteed to all groups. Also, in financial terms, state support is not exclusively directed to the Orthodox Church, but also to the Muslim minority in Western Thrace. Nevertheless, life for Muslims in Greece is not always easy; the construction of the first Mosque in Athens has been delayed for years, also due to the opposition of Church officials. The Greek capital city still does not have a State-funded mosque. The first one is set to open next summer.

Many share the conviction that in order to reduce the influence of the Orthodoxy, Church-State financial and institutional ties must be loosened. Proposals for an institutional divorce have been put forth since the 80s by the socialist PASOK, and more recently by SYRIZA, but no explicit initiative for a full separation has been taken until now.

Equating the appeal of Orthodoxy to its ties to the State, however, is a mistake, as Sotiris Mitralexis explains: “There is a widespread erroneous belief that the Orthodox Church has a strong influence on society because it is State-sponsored, while the truth is that institutional and legal aspects have very little to do with the symbolic power of religion”.

Would a divorce help secularize society? Quite the contrary; once not tied to the State anymore, the Church could gain broader freedom of advocacy, while its appeal to society would still be intact. It would gain incentives to claim its share of the public sphere in opposition to the State. What is usually referred to as a separation could turn out to be a liberation for the Church. According to Mitralexis, it is the Church that should fervently desire a full separation from the State, and it is the State that has a number of counterincentives.


The tentative deal

Most Church hierarchs, however, do not see an institutional separation from the State as an opportunity. When, in 2018, the SYRIZA-led government finalized a proposal to enshrine in the constitution the “religious neutrality” of the Greek State, while still paying clerics’ wages, fierce opposition came from the Synod, as well as from the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchate, which includes the Church of Crete, the Church of the Dodecanese and parts of Northern Greece under its jurisdiction.

The deal sank after the Synod voted against the terms Alexis Tsipras and Archbishop Ieronymos had preliminarily agreed on. As for the constitutional reform, the switched balance of power that emerged from the July 2019 elections allowed ND to dismiss the proposal for the religious neutrality of the State.

In the Church’s opposition to the deal, hostility towards SYRIZA has played a major role. Breaking with tradition, most SYRIZA members of the government decided not to take the religious oath and blessing of the Archbishop at the moment of their inauguration.

SYRIZA and the Church came ever more into conflict after the clash on the reform of religion lessons. In 2016, the then-Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Nikos Filis wanted to turn the confessional character of religion at school into something closer to “religious studies”. Filis was expelled from the government after a reshuffle, and his successor Kostas Gavroglu adopted a less aggressive stance towards the Church.

Regardless of the hostility to the left, the Church does not seem eager to face an institutional separation and a progressive change in the framework of clerics’ wages and pensions. The Greek State started to contribute to the salaries and pensions of the clergy in 1945, but only since 2004 the State has been paying them in toto. In 2013, the salaries and pensions of the clergy – around 200 million euros per year – were incorporated into the national budget.

With the proposed deal, rejected by the Synod, Tsipras counted on scratching 10,000 clerics off the state payroll, making room for as many new hires in the public sector. The State would have started paying a yearly sum to a fund managed by the Church and used exclusively to pay the clergy’s wages and pensions.


The Church’s precarious finances

The tentative deal was also a way to settle the dispute over the Church’s property assets. Of the 4% of ecclesiastical property that was not confiscated by the state, most is still blocked by bureaucratic obstacles. Property ownership in Greece is a controversial matter, due to the lack of a modern land registry.

When it comes to the Church assets, additional property controversies with the State are ongoing since 1952. Despite the expropriations, the Church is still believed to be the second-biggest landowner after the State; but in the absence of a clear legal framework, its assets cannot be commercially exploited. By keeping the institutional relationships and the wages framework unaltered, most clerics believe they are protecting the economic stability of the Church. But such stability is not to be taken for granted.

“There is much disinformation in the Greek public debate about this issue. Church hierarchs are formed within the state mentality and fail to see potential problems, in the tacit conviction that nothing will ever change. Yet, things are already changing in practice, both on the legal and on the financial side” Sotiris Mitralexis explains, insisting that the inertia of the Church when it comes to discussing possible changes is self-defeating: especially after the crisis, there is no guarantee of financial sustainability for the Church in the long run.

In spite of its tragic impact on the weaker parts of Greek society, the economic crisis was an opportunity for the Church to show its social importance. When the economic and the migration crises hit, parishes and charities multiplied their efforts to provide food, shelter and medical assistance to those in need.

But the crisis hit the Church hard: rental incomes shrank, along with the dividends of assets held by the Church in the Bank of Greece; the introduction of a property tax (ENFIA) as part of the austerity measures increased taxation of the Church at the moment of highest financial need. The clergy is also subject to the same provisions imposed by the memorandum in terms of public servants: for every five retirements, only one new cleric can be appointed.

These developments add up to the financial precariousness of the Church and seeking the exploitation of its remaining property assets might be the only viable solution for the future. This would require cooperation with the State and a willingness, on both sides of the bargaining table, to look at the longer-term and not only at short-term electoral advantages and the defense of existing privileges.

The continuation of the current salary regime is not to be taken for granted, were a new crisis to hit. Complete financial independence, on the other hand, is unlikely to be achieved by the Church of Greece, even if it could start exploiting its property assets.

The Tsipras-Ieronymos deal would have included formal recognition that Church assets were confiscated with no appropriate reparations made, and the yearly sum the government would have started to pay to the Church was meant to be a refund.

But Orthodox hierarchs feared that any change in the institutional relationship with the State would disrupt the Church’s privileges, while in Tsipras’s plan to hire thousands of public servants right after scratching the clerics off the state payment rolls, many saw the latest in a long series of clientelist moves in Greek politics.


New Democracy: modernizers or traditionalists?

It is unlikely that any significant development will take place in the next years. During SYRIZA’s government, opposition to the ruling coalition and adherence to the Church’s views often became one and the same for the opposition party New Democracy and its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

When ND won the national elections last July, the newly appointed Prime Minister Mitsotakis and most of his fellow ministers opted for the religious oath. While ND’s leader presents himself as a modernizer and a liberalizer, his discourse – along with that of the more traditionalist components of his party – has often been winking at the more conservative fringes of Greek society. Church-State relationships are thus likely to remain as they are.

As for the secularization of society, it should probably be pursued with other means than an institutional separation. «When governments try to forcefully impose a secularist agenda, they risk triggering the opposite effect», Mitralexis argues, adding that if Greek politics was to do something to ease a more inclusive society, instead of directly meddling with the Church’s political discourse, it could do so by showing friendship to the most moderate voices of Orthodoxy, projecting them as a counterexample to the reactionary ones.

According to a 2018 survey carried out by Dianeosis on behalf of World Values Survey, distrust in political institutions is high in Greece. Only around 30% of Greeks say they trust the Hellenic Parliament at least “enough”, and the European Union does not perform any better. The Church is among the most appreciated institutions, and as such it could keep providing a sense of togetherness, while also filling the gaps of the State in terms of social protection. As long as its hierarchy marginalizes discriminatory voices and discourses, instead of sponsoring them, Orthodoxy is bound to continue playing such key cohesive role.



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