To the father, the son, the holy spirit... AND THE STATE? (I) Ben Heine
Oia, Santorini island (Greece)

The Greek Church's fortune and its fiscal privileges have been for long the source of many outcries. Since the 30th of July, the Greek Church and the Greek government made official that they will be common shareholders of a real estate company that will manage the clergy land property.  

A few weeks ago, the Greek government of Antonis Samaras announced the project in which the Church and the Greek State will be common shareholders of a real estate company. This real estate company will manage the clergy land property giving to the State the opportunity to take benefit of the large properties owned by the powerful Greek clergy. The creation of the Society for the Exploitation of Church Real Estate Property S.A., also known with the acronym EAEAP, was announced on the 30th of July. This original project is supposed to give an opportunity for both parties to broaden their actions on the social level and maybe other motivations can be guessed. Once again, it is the opportunity to discuss the ambiguous position of the Church in Greece.  

Liaisons between the Church and the State

Religion takes a prominent place in the Greek society, but also in the political sphere where the link between politicians and clergyman is unclear. Besides this blurred connection, the mystery hangs over the Church property that stirs many fantasies. The surprising thing is that the Greek Church seems to be sited on mountains of gold and benefits in parallel of really exaggerated fiscal advantages. Those exaggerated advantages could almost be qualified as shameful in regard of the gravity of the crisis and of the dramatic consequences that shook the Greek citizens.

The relation between the two entities is even more ambiguous in a country where Church and State are not separated. Firstly, the Greek Constitution of 1975 is written in the name of the Holy Trinity con-substantial and indivisible, which put the Orthodox religion as constitutive element of the Greek nation. The article 3 establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ as the prevailing religion in Greece. The predominance of the Greek orthodox religion does not leave any room for the other minor religions, fact that has caused, in the past, disputes between the Greek government and the European Court of Human Rights.

In addition to its dominant role in the construction of the Greek State, Religion also has an important place in the Greek citizens’ mind. 98% of the Greek citizens are orthodox. This starts really early as it is connected to the Greek educational system. For example, in France, the Church is related to the Ministry of the Interior, while in Greece it is attached to the Ministry of Education which is called Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs. In schools, religious courses, essentially deal about Orthodoxy. In addition, the priests bless each school entry (start of the academic year). Priests are also present to major sporting events whereas bank holidays are often associated with religious celebrations. New governments are also blessed by the priests and according to the article 59 of the Constitution of 1975, all members of the Parliament are required to take an Oath of Office that mean they promise to keep faith under the Christian Trinity.

The Church and politics in Greece are in pretty good terms, or at least they have to. Regarding the predominance of the Church in public opinion it would not be wise for a politician to dare offend the clergy. To start, remember this picture that moved along the world in June 2012 where we can see Antonis Samaras (the actual Prime Minister) bowing and swearing in front of a gold bible held by Ieronymos the Archbishop of Athens. This picture reminds the significant weight of the Orthodox Church in Greece and more specifically in the political scene. Another example of the dominance of the Church in the public opinion is the very famous conflict about identity cards. The conflict began in 2000 by the will of the Prime Minister Simitis to remove the religious reference on identity cards. Christodoulos, the Archbishop of Athens at the time was against this initiative. The clergy called for major events in the country and managed to collect more than 3 million of signatures (the whole population of Greece in 2011 was almost 11 million inhabitants). Christodoulos finally lost the battle and the religious reference had been removed from the identity cards.

However, the virulence of the confrontation and the incredible number of signatories illustrate very well the role of the Church. To go further, in remarks collected by Alain Salles for the French newspapers in 2011, Polikarpos Karamouzis, professor of sociology of religion at the University of Rhodes, explains that the Church of Greece is a national church; this means that there is a political connection between the Church and the State which gives it privileges. The Church’s spiritual role is closely linked to its political one creating confusion among the faithful and the citizens. This confusion is feed by politicians seeking for votes.

The Church and the Crisis

Since the beginning of the crisis, the Church plays an important social role. In fact, the Church appears as the saver of a poorly conducted Greece: a role which is obviously supposed to be hold by the state. Since 2010, the politicization of the ecclesiastical power is even more important that it was already before. For years, the fortune of the Church was at the origin of a lot of debates and fantasies. The Church which is the second largest landowner in the country, just after the State, is sitting on a consequent heritage. The exact extent of the fortune remains still unclear given that the land registry has not been completed. However, thanks to some estimation we can at least imagine the greatness of its fortune. The land of the church is about 130 000 hectares. The ecclesiastical institution is holding hundreds of real estate including "lands to build" which benefit from a high commercial value.

In recent years, the Church properties, especially those situated in Athens suburbs or on the seaside, attract the interest of Russia, Qatar and China who see the opportunity to build resorts. The Central Ecclesiastical Financial Service (EKYO) also holds 1,5 of shares or securities of the National Bank of Greece. According to an estimation made in 2008 by the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, the fortune of the Church could represent more than 700 million euros. Despite the blurred accounts and the opaque management of the ecclesiastical property, the large extent of its fortune is not a secret.

The Church in Greece benefits from huge tax exoneration. Thus, the Church seems to  have paid in 2010, 2,5 million euro in taxes.This amount is absolutely ridiculous in regard of its 700 million euros of fortune. In 2011, the Prime Minister George Papaendreou introduced a new property tax "charatsi" to fill the public accounts. At the beginning, the Church had been totally exempted from this new tax. Finally, after a lot of protest from the citizens, the tax is applied to the Church heritage but the religious or charitable buildings are exempted. In other words, that means that the Church is exempted from this tax unless its goods exploited commercially. The Greek Church depends on the Ministry of Education. The priests are public servants. The clergy and the Orthodox Church of Greece are paid and receive a state treatment. Salaries and pensions of the clergy, pastors and other employees represent nearly 255 million euros to the State and more precisely to the Ministry of Education where the Church belongs. The Church is almost exempted from tax payments and would have payed 2.5 million euro on its assets in 2010, a pretty small amount given its fortune.

The most striking is not only this ridiculous amount, but the fact that the Church belongs to the Ministry of Education which had to enforce drastic measures the past years. The quality of education in Greece had been badly hit by those. While I am writing those lines most of the Greek teachers still do not know if they will keep their job, if they will be fired, suspended or transferred in the coming days.

Edited by: Ana Postolache
Photo Credits: Ben Heine via flickr