Philanthropy and its perks
Over the past ten years, the Church in Greece has been reinforcing its patriotic rhetoric and, since 2008, with an increasing tendency to focus more on its philanthropic role. The Church has assumed a patronizing attitude towards the population, adopting relief strategies that highlight the “victimization” of Greeks in face of the economic austerity imposed by weak politicians. It is a fact that, within the last few years, the number of people resorting to soup kitchens has dramatically increased: a predictable consequence of the crisis Greece is going through. Overall, the Church has invested approximately 100 million Euros in its charities.
These more recently emphasized welfare and social concerns of the Orthodox Church seem to legitimize its preeminent position within the State. Since 2002, the Church has founded two non-governmental organizations: “Allileggii” (“Solidarity”), foreclosed on grounds of bad management, and replaced, in 2010, by “Apostoli” (“Mission”). The Church’s philanthropic activity has been intensified quite recently, and seems especially fragile.
Something on the lines of “the Church in aid of the poor” has become a new official policy. Social intervention has also been used to justify tax exemption, under the argument that if the Church paid more taxes, it would not be able to invest so much on its philanthropic role. The Church defends its preeminent political status by positioning itself on the ground, alongside the average Greek, where the authority of the State is questioned and has lost some of its efficiency.
Greece is crumbling down...
On the 30th of July, the Greek government announced the creation of a joint venture, between the State and the Church, to manage ecclesiastical property assets. The management of EAEAP, the Society for the Exploitation of Church Real Estate Property, is split in two, 50% to the State and 50% to the Church. The revenues will be collected through renting Church real estate. Church property will be transferred to this new company, for a period of 99 years. Officially, the project aims to promote the social role of both institutions involved. The State has an opportunity to reinforce its assistance to the most vulnerable groups, while the Church could further develop its charity projects.
Obviously, it also poses an opportunity for the State to bring fresh revenue into public accounts. On the other hand, it will also help to clean the image of the Orthodox Church, with regards to criticism over its fiscal benefits. It may seem that, through this joint venture, the ecclesiastic institution is supporting the Greek State to find a new source of revenue. But who will truly benefit, in the end? It is tempting to point the finger at the Church, in order to divert attention from the real problems that Greece is undergoing, at the moment.
The country has been in recession for six years, now. Unemployment continues to be on the rise, affecting 27% of the population, and 57% of those under the age of 25. Taxes continue to increase while public spending is progressively cut: in the health sector, it has decreased by 20%, between 2010 and 2012. Despite the notable failures of the ‘troika’ in the last few years, austerity is still at the top of the agenda. On the 29th of July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) granted a new aid package representing 1.72 billion Euros. In exchange, Greece will have to restructure its public service and lay-off 15 000 civil servants by the end of 2014, including 4 000 before the end of the year. We are witnessing a real destruction of the public service. Salaries and pensions have also experienced reductions, decreasing the purchasing power of the population. The minimum gross monthly salary is 585 Euros (but only 515 Euros for people aged below 25 years of age).
...but the Church sleeps in golden bed sheets
I do not want to go too deep into the matter of austerity’s consequences in Greece because it is not the topic of this article. I simply wish to present the vivid reality of what is really going on in this country. I would also like to draw attention to this ironic parallel: the Church, the second largest landowner in Greece, sitting on top of a fortune estimated in 700 billion Euros, is almost completely exonerated from taxation; whereas most Greeks have to survive with – or without – a continuously decreasing salary.
The subject of the ecclesiastical accumulated fortune and its significant fiscal privileges continues to attract the attention of many; whether they are journalists or politicians, and including my own. It would be absolutely utopian to argue that taxing the Church more heavily would resolve the Greek economic crisis. That is not the case. But from the point of view of fairness, and again stressing the absolutely dramatic situation in Greece, everyone should be required to contribute, even the Church. Not only out of a sense of fairness, but essentially out of respect for those Greek citizens who are bent under the weight of austerity while the Church sleeps in golden bed sheets.