Ortho­dox priests to be cut from Greek govern­ment pay­roll

The Guardian Australia - - World News - He­lena Smith in Athens

Athens’ left­ist govern­ment has taken a rad­i­cal step in trans­form­ing the Greek state’s re­la­tions with the pow­er­ful Ortho­dox church, an­nounc­ing an end to the sta­tus of cler­ics as civil ser­vants.

In the big­gest move yet to­wards the 11-mil­lion strong na­tion be­com­ing a fully fledged sec­u­lar coun­try, of­fi­cials said the pub­lic sec­tor would cease to have any re­li­gious role.

“With this agree­ment 10,000 civil ser­vant posts will be freed up,” said the govern­ment spokesman Dim­itris Tzan­nakopou­los. “Al­though cler­ics are not ex­actly civil ser­vants, in name they are, and are counted as civil ser­vants.”

The prime min­is­ter, Alexis Tsipras, an athe­ist, has said he was de­ter­mined to over­haul the Greek state’s com­plex ties with the church. Pro­gres­sives have long spo­ken of the need to sep­a­rate church and state with the “his­toric” ac­cord now be­ing seen as key to achiev­ing both.

Un­der a deal be­tween the govern­ment and church, priests would be paid from a joint fund that would also man­age earn­ings gen­er­ated from prop­er­ties whose own­er­ship has long been dis­puted be­tween the two bod­ies.

The Greek church is by far the coun­try’s rich­est in­sti­tu­tion with ho­tels, en­ter­prises and other as­sets in its port­fo­lio. The scale of such wealth fre­quently caused fric­tion dur­ing Greece’s long-run­ning fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Un­der the deal, rev­enues from prop­er­ties whose own­er­ship has been con­tested since the early 1950s would be split 50-50.

Tzan­nakopou­los said the ac­cord also sought to en­sure re­li­gious neu­tral­ity for a state long ac­cused of prej­u­dic­ing cit­i­zens who were not Greek Ortho­dox. Athens has faced fierce crit­i­cism for per­ceived vi­o­la­tion of the rights of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, be they Mus­lims, Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses or Catholics.

“Re­li­gious neu­tral­ity [means] that the Greek state will not be able to recog­nise cer­tain re­li­gions with more or less rights,” Tzan­nakopou­los added. “But what doesn’t change is recog­ni­tion of the fact that the Ortho­dox church has the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of [re­li­gious] faith­ful.”

Pre­vi­ous ef­forts to sep­a­rate church and state have in­vari­ably stum­bled on the in­nate so­cial con­ser­vatism of a na­tion that has ac­knowl­edged the church’s role in pre­serv­ing faith and language dur­ing 400 years of Ot­toman rule. Even if few reg­u­larly at­tend Sun­day ser­vice, the church has still been viewed as a cen­tral pil­lar of so­ci­ety.

Cabi­net mem­bers, high­light­ing its role in pub­lic life, were sworn in be­fore the coun­try’s ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal lead­er­ship in a tra­di­tion seen as both con­tro­ver­sial and anachro­nis­tic.

The agree­ment, which had yet to be rat­i­fied by the cabi­net and Holy Synod, the church’s gov­ern­ing body, was un­veiled after Tsipras held talks late on Tues­day with Greece’s spir­i­tual leader, Arch­bishop Ierony­mos.

Within hours, the news had ig­nited a fu­ri­ous back­lash with bish­ops con­demn­ing it as a be­trayal. Ierony­mos, a mod­er­ate, at­tempt­ing to pla­cate the out­cry, in­sisted on Wed­nes­day that the agree­ment was far from fi­nalised. “Agree­ment is one thing. The in­ten­tion to agree is an­other,” he said.

“An agree­ment has been an­nounced [that out­lines] the in­ten­tion, the good­will of both the church and the state to find a so­lu­tion to prob­lems that have lasted for al­most a cen­tury … we have a big strug­gle ahead of us to say to our priests that what­ever is to hap­pen we will do to­gether.”

Pho­to­graph: An­ge­los Tzortzi­nis/AFP/ Getty Images

A Greek Ortho­dox priest (right) with a Greek Ortho­dox pil­grim in­side Athens’ Metropoli­tan church.

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