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Greek state and church in messy divorce?

Anthee Carassava Athens
November 22, 2018

The Greek government wants to sack the nation's clergy in a bid to break away from the church. But severing those ties in Europe's most religious country could spell a "holy war." Anthee Carassava reports from Athens.

Greek PM Tsipras and a Orthodox Church leader
Image: Greek Prime Minister's Office/Andrea Bonetti

Throughout the Mediterranean nation's brutal financial crisis, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stopped short of antagonizing relations with the church as millions of crisis-crippled Greeks turned to the country's most powerful institution for support and spiritual succor.

But now, unshackled from the handcuffs of international creditors and brutal bailout loans, Tsipras wants a divorce. He also wants a stake in the church's vast fortune. At the same time he doesn't want to see the break-up turn nasty.

So, in a bid to find an amicable settlement, he's stitched together a canny, 15-point plan paving the way for a seamless separation in one of Europe's most theocratic member states.

Under that scheme, the nation's 9000-strong clergy would be sacked. They would be removed from the state payroll and stripped of plump, public benefits and pensions which the wealthy Greek Orthodox Church would instead be required to pay.

Read moreOpinion: Post-austerity, Greece gets a second chance 

It's all about the money

The church would also have to loosen its vice-grip on the nation's faith, allowing the state to declare itself "religiously neutral."

In return, the state would drop all claims to vast tracts of lands and property which the church has long claimed its own, forming, instead, a massive money-making land development project which both sides would supervise and share profits, 50-50.

Sounds lucrative? Leronymos II, the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, was sold within 45 minutes of the sales pitch. He was seen shaking hands with Tsipras and briefly hugging him before parting ways after a surprise meeting earlier this month.

The inside of a Greek church
The Greek government's plans could alienate many Greeks who have a strong religious connectionImage: DW/A. Carassava

Yet no sooner had both men publicly praised what they called a "landmark deal," their secret agreement ignited a furious backlash, with bishops and clergy condemning it as a betrayal.

All hell has since broken loose, turning this divorce into a nasty showdown.

At an urgently convened meeting this week of the church's senior-most decision making body, 72 of the country's 82 leading bishops sided with the nation's clergy, refusing to purge them from the state payroll.

Government takes hard-line approach

The government almost immediately shot back. "Let's make things clear," said government spokesman Dimitris Tzannakopoulos, "the government is well within its rights to regulate anything and everything that has to do with the state budget. So, if the church does not side with our proposal concerning the clergy, then the government will take it upon itself to do so."

By playing tough, critics say, the government hopes to arm-twist the church into the divorce settlement it wants. But picking a fight with the country's most powerful institution could backfire for Tsipras, a self-avowed atheist.

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"Any and every time the state has rivaled the church with some new reform or measure, it has lost," analyst and columnist Nikos Dimou told DW.

Waiting for a miracle

On the face of it, the proposed divorce settlement offers a groundbreaking opportunity for the church. Many Greeks also consider it sensible: It pushes the country closer to becoming genuinely secular. It opens the church's books to the state auditors to look into its vast fortune, estimated at over €700 billion ($800 billion). And by purging the clergy from the state's expenses, it makes room for 9,000 desperately needed jobs in a country topping Europe's unemployment list.

Read moreA timeline of Greece's long road to recovery

But severing longstanding links between church and state is a complex, challenging task that is politically sensitive in a country where more than 90 percent of the population defines its national identity based on a shared Orthodox faith.

Candles at a Greek church
The Greek Orthodox Church has traditionally played a strong role in shaping Greek societyImage: DW/A. Carassava

More importantly, Greeks have lost their belief in Tsipras.

"He has backtracked on almost every campaign promise he has made," said Sofia Georgiafendi, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, while attending a church mass at her local parish, north of Athens. "He doesn't care about the church; just his own political survival," she told DW.

"Who is to say that his assurances today will be met tomorrow?" she asked. "Where will that leave the clergy? Where will that leave our faith?"

Electioneering on the back of the Church?

Since his election in 2015, the former communist youth party leader has vowed to disentangle relations between the church and state. But he has held off because of the key role and support the church has played in supporting thousands of crisis-crippled Greeks as the nation's social services collapsed amid sweeping budget cuts.

With elections due next year and the prime minister facing plummeting popularity ratings, critics and clergy accuse Tsipras of using the church to score political points, moving to free up some 9,000 jobs in the public sector and create new jobs just ahead of the key polls.

"It's beyond political wizardry," said Bishop Serapheim of Piraeus in a fiery public statement. "These are fascist-like designs which the flock will resist if the government acts on them."

The Greek Church predates the Greek state by some 1,500 years. And all previous attempts to separate the two institutions have invariably stumbled on the nation's resistance to turning its back on the key role the church played in preserving the Orthodox faith and Greek language during 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Aides are said to be advising Tsipras to back away down from his government's showdown with the church, especially in light of a fresh poll published on Thursday that showed 7 in 10 Greeks are convinced he would lose the upcoming polls to his conservative opponents — traditionally supportive of the nation's influential clergy.

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