With the end of the 2015 National Elections in Greece, it became a point of interest that Greece elected their first ever openly atheist Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. While this is mildly interesting (mostly since I’m more inclined to believe that Tsipras’ atheism is an outgrowth of his marxist past than any real philosophical reflection) it is important for people to understand the history that has shaped the current entangled relations between the Orthodox Church and the Hellenic Republic and why this creates special challenges for the secularization of the country.
Hopefully the following article will help you understand the complex interaction between Orthodoxy, the greek national identity and the government.
And in order to do that we have to start our historical journey way back, in the era of the roman and byzantine emperors. Yes, the seeds of the current situation were planted all the way back in 313 A.D., when Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan.
Two notes: All unsourced images are public domain images from Wikipedia; the word “Church” is used with two meanings: before the establishment of the Greek State, it refers to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, after that it’s a reference to the Church of Greece.
The Dawn of the Christian Era
The Edict of Milan effectively brings an end to the era of intolerance towards the early Christians and marks the beginning of a campaign by Constantine to christianize the Roman Empire and unite it under the christian faith, sanctioned by the state. His attempts were continued by emperors like Theodosius and Justinian I, who not only promoted Christianity, but actively persecuted the pagan parallel deities of Greece and Rome. This era is also marked with the destruction of several pagan monuments and temples, when the Christians flexed the muscles of their newly acquired powers.
529 A.D. is the typical date used to mark the end of the era of the ancestral hellenic religion, when Justinian closed down the neoplatonic Academy of Athens. From that point on the Roman/Byzantine Empire is effectively a christian state, even though dodecatheistic sects persist for a few more centuries and hellenic philosophy survived all the way to the 15th century (e.g. Gemistus Pletho)
This naturally means that the Christian Church becomes extremely influential in the Empire, though, unlike the Pope later in the West, never wields actual political power and often clashed with the emperial authority. In any case, Greece would never be the same.
The Byzantine Era
With the Eastern Roman Empire unified under a common religion and a gratia dei emperor, starts a period of impressive cultural explosion, especially in religious art (hagiography), architecture, literature and philosophy, under the auspices of theology, though with an emphasis on mysticism and not the analytical tradition seen in the West. This divergence, plus the lack on a lingua franca (the West speaking Latin and the East using Greek), coupled with political ambitions from the Pope, led to the eventual Schism of 1054 A.D., which led to further political friction between the Empire and the western states.
This period (between the 7th and 13th century) also marks the solidification of the Orthodox Church’s as a financial and political powerhouse. Church lands continued to accumulate with every new generation (some granted by the emperors in exchange for support, others willed to the Church by people trying to get on its good side after death) and its political influences waxes and wanes with each emperor, but is always in the background. It’s wealth, in the form of precious metals, is also indubitable, but the emperors were not above confiscating some of it in cases of need (as in the case of Michael VII Doukas, for instance).
During this time the Orthodox Church also managed to spread northward to the then barbaric tribes, into Bulgaria and all the way to Russia through military campaigns (like Basil I the Slayer of Bulgars), diplomacy and extensive missionary work (like that of the famous Sts. Cyril and Methodius).
However, it can also be argued that the Church also hastened the decline of the Empire when monasticism became popular enough and an easy way to avoid conscripted service (especially with its vindication with the “Hesychastic Movement” backed by St. Gregory Palamas.) Mount Athos had already become a major monastic centre during the 10th century and still remains one today, partly autonomous from the Greek State.
The Decline of the Empire
While the Byzantine Empire was already showing signs of fatigue through its inability to keep its holdings from the invading Seljuk Turks, the coup de grâce occured in 1204, when the armies of the 4th Crusade never made it to the Holy Lands, but besieged, occupied and sacked Constantinople. Afterwards the Empire was divided amongst the various invaders, creating puppet latin states for the european powers. This also sealed the fate of the Schism, as any further attempt to reunify Christendom was doomed to fail as obvious political machinations.
It might also seem odd, but this event, more than 800 years ago, still resonates with the Greeks, is blamed for the collapse of the Grand Hellenic Empire (as the later Byzantine Empire is considered, and by extension the Roman Empire all the way down to Constantine) and paints even today Western Europe with a dark tint; especially the papal institution. The event is typically called “Frankokratia” (=the Frank Occupation) in Greece and the word “Franc” used widely as a pejorative for western Europeans.
After these events, the remaining Byzantine enclaves were sure to be suspicious of any help from the West to repel the invading Turks and the Church would go so far as to say that the Turks were preferable to subjugation to the Pope (“better the turkish fez than the Pope’s tiara”). It is likely that the Church officials already had assurances from the turkish side that they would be left to their own ecclesiastical devices, making this an easy choice for them. The last attempt at reunification of the Church in order to elicit military aid was at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439 and was doomed to fail. Constantinople would fall to the Turks a few years later in 1453; an event that would prove to be a lasting scar in the Greek psyche to this day.
The Early Turkish Occupation
This is perhaps the most important period in the history of the Church and the new Hellenic State, as most of modern Greece’s attitudes towards religion stem from the, traditionally, 400 years between 1453 and 1821 of Ottoman rule in the greek mainland.
The Patriarch Gennadius Scholarius becomes the first ethnarch of the Orthodox by Mehmed II. His strong anti-Union made him a sensible option to avoid a western liberation crusade.
The turkish domination naturally saw the demise of the byzantine aristocracy, but the Church was not only left untouched, its privileges all left in place, but its power also increased under the millet system, employed by the ottoman government. This meant that the subjugated peoples of the old empire were divided according to their religion and administered by their religious leaders; that is the Orthodox Christians would end up being directly under the ecclesiastical and political authority of the Patriarch, their “ethnarch”, ruling them for the Sultan, regardless of ethnicity. The same held true for Jews, Syriac Christians, Armenians and Catholics, as well as Muslims. Privileged and obligations basically stemmed from religious affiliation.
This system proved lax enough to help the emergence of a new ruling class in Constantinople, as the Greeks that lived in the Fanari region of the city rose in power as merchants, ecclesiastical leaders, Patriarchs and diplomats (especially since the Ottomans generally did not deign to learn the languages of the unbelievers). This meant wealth, education and exposure to western culture and ideas during the critical period of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.
The millet system can be easily blamed for the modern Greek confusion between ethnicity and religion; the Ottoman Empire did not see Greeks, Serbs, Albanians etc. It only saw religion; and this attitude would eventually carry over to the fledgling Hellenic State.
It is also important to note that this period was not an entirely pleasant one for the conquered people of the Byzantine Empire, especially in the rural areas. While the Ottomans where remarkably tolerant for their time, they were still a medieval empire and a muslim one at that. This meant that the population had to endure subjugation of one degree or another (especially in areas that didn’t produce something the new empire considered of value to warrant special privileges), discrimination compared to the muslim population, higher taxation through the koranic jizya tax and a periodic conscription of children to man the elite janissary forces and public offices of the Porte (devşirme).
This last practice, while decreasing in frequency with time and the needs of each Sultan (the most consistent sources mention that 1 child was drafted for every 40 families around the 1600s) is featured prominently in greek folklore in a distinct negative light. This “pedomazoma” (=gathering of children) meant that familial ties would be cut, mainly due to distance, conversion to the muslim faith, but also meant increased standards of living; so while it was considered generally a dreaded occasion, there were people who sent their children voluntarily to be drafted, so they could have a better future. The last recorded devşirme was in 1705, but it would become a prominent feature of the victim complex that would be part of the balkan christian mentality.
The Hidden School
by Nikolaos Gyzis (1885-86)
Another stone in the wall of victim complex that would be placed in this time period is what is commonly known in Greece as “kryfo scholyo” (=hidden school), i.e. schools operated mainly by clergy in secret because the Ottomans forbade the Greeks from receiving education. The certified existence of numerous greek schools during this period, the fact that the hidden school doesn’t appear as a concept before 1824, along with the fact that the Porte never had a consistent nor universal attitude towards education led many modern historians to reject this as largely a myth, albeit an extremely persistent one. Even to this day I doubt many Greeks are convinced that the “hidden school” phenomenon wasn’t really widespread in the Ottoman Empire or that it was actually a later fabrication). If anything, the “hidden school” was just an exaggeration to show the Greeks’ commitment to education by any means necessary, which leads up to the next major period of contemporary greek history: the Enlightenment.
The Greek Enlightenment
The cover of “Hermes o Logios”, the first greek magazine
The Age of Enlightenment influenced Greece in a special fashion. With many of the Phanariotes (the influential Greeks in the Ottoman bureaucracy) being members of the clergy, the Enlightenment value of Liberty was readily absorbed, but its anti-religious sentiment was largely muted. That’s not to say that it was entirely absent, but rather transmuted to a more palatable anti-superstitious or anti-clerical variety instead, when it was brought up at all. Strongly secular and anti-religious works like Thomas Paine’s or Voltaire’s are absent from the corpus of the Greek Enlightenment.
Notable examples of Greek Enlightenment figures include:
- Methodios Anthrakitis (1660-1736) An early example, he was schooled in the natural sciences in Venice and returned in Greece as the director of the ecclesiastical school of the city of Kastoria. He wrote on philosophy, ethics and science (he even taught the copernican system, though did not advocate for it), criticized the higher clergy for their behaviour and was one of the first advocates for the use of the demotic greek language instead of the archaic one. Ultimately he was accused of heresy, his philosophical works burned, but was reinstated a few years later.
- Iosipos Moisiodax (1725-1800) A monk, he became director of the Princely Academy of Iaşi and professor of philosophy. He was influenced by John Locke and was an advocate of the western philosophical tradition instead of the typical Neo-Aristotelian tradition of Theophilos Corydalleus that was widely taught in Greece at the time.
- Anthimos Gazis (1758-1828) A priest from Vienna who circulated the first Greek periodical “Hermes o Logios” and was a central figure in the failed insurrection of Thessaly in 1821. His cartographic work was also significant.
- Theoklitos Farmakidis (1784-1860) Also a clergyman, he continued Gazis’ publication of “Hermes o Logios” and was active in the politics of the newly found Hellenic State.
- Rigas Feraios (1757-1798) One of the most celebrated figures of the Greek Revolution, he was one of the most vocal supporters of a pan-Balkan revolt against the Ottoman Empire and of cooperation and fraternity between the balkan national groups. He was arrested by the Austrians while attempting to meet with Napoleon and executed.
- Adamantios Korais (1748-1833) A student of philosophy in Paris, Korais was against the byzantine influence of greek society, the corruption of the clergy and the widespread superstition of the Greeks. He notably wrote against the miracle of the holy fire of Jerusalem. He was also a supporter of the use of the katharevousa version of the greek language (a middle ground between archaic and demotic greek).
- Athanasios Psalidas (1767-1829) A philosopher and novelist, most famous for his tackling of issues like the existence of God, immortality and ethics; and was accused for his trouble for voltairean atheism. He was also a prolific translator and supporter of the demotic greek.
- Theophilos Kairis (1784-1853) One of the most controversial figures of the Enlightenment, a priest who taught philosophy and natural sciences and advocated a variety of Deism called “Theosophy”. He was condemned for heresy, but died before he could be tried; posthumously acquitted.
From this short list it is quite clear that the Church was heavily involved in the pre-revolutionary process, though not in an official capacity; the vicinity of the Patriarchate with the Sultan would make any such official act a death sentence.
This period is also marked by several minor revolts in the Balkans and a major attempt just before the main 1821 Greek Revolution (the Orlov Revolt; 1768-1774). Apart from military subdual, the Turks responded with various attempts at islamization, so many people ended up being executed for refusing conversion, clergy and laity alike, creating a large body of neo-martyrs. This solidified the belief that the Orthodox faith was worth dying for; a notion that would come to dominate the revolutionary narrative.
It should be becoming quite clear by now that unlike the French and the American Revolution, the Greek equivalent was not spearheaded by the secular forces alone on strictly political reasons, but was well-supported by the religious, not only as a means of national, but also religious liberty and identity. This is also likely the period when the widespread belief that the Church single-handedly preserved the greek national identity crystallized. During the actual Revolution though the Church’s involvement was a tad more controversial.
Regardless, up to this point the Church was continuing to amass wealth both in coin and in real estate. The first was achieved both through tax collecting and pilgrimages. The second mainly through inheritance, since people (especially those without heirs) preferred to leave their assets to the Church to prevent it from reverting to Turkish ownership. There was also a minor trend of selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, though nowhere near close to the catholic practice.
The Greek Revolution
Palaion Patron Germanos blesses the revolutionary flag
by Theodoros Vryzakis (1865)
Even from the very start, the Greek Revolution becomes enveloped in a religious legend. The Orthodox Church celebrates the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary on March 25th. The Greek Revolution is conventionally considered to have erupted on March 25th, 1821 and is celebrated every year on the same date.
The focal point was the Monastery of Agia Lavra, near the village of Kalavryta of the Northern Peloponnese, where the metropolitan of Old Patras, Germanos supposedly blessed the revolutionary flag (the relic is still kept there) after the festive liturgy and officially launched the Revolution (though the first skirmishes had already started a few days earlier). It is heavily contested if this event really took place and only recently has it stopped being taught in schools as fact (at least officially in books, because I’m certain that teachers still teach this), but is indicative of the importance of religion in the Revolution.
The Greek Revolution also included many members of the clergy as actual freedom fighters, with notable figures including:
- Athanasios Diakos a deacon, who is traditionally believed to have been executed by being skewered alive after being capture after a battle.
- Grigorios Dikaios a priest, commonly known as “Papaflessas”, killed in battle.
- Theodoritos the bishop of Vrestheni, who lived to see a liberated Greece.
- Joseph the bishop of Rogae, who failed to escape during the exodus from the besieged city of Mesologgi and ended his life by setting fire to a powder storehouse.
- Samuel an abbot, who took his own life and a small contingent’s of Greeks in order to kill a larger Turkish force by similarly igniting a powder storeroom in the Kougki Tower in Epirus.
The religious undertones of the Revolution were ubiquitous. Revolutionary mottos included “Freedom or Death”, but also “For the Christ’s holy faith and the homeland’s freedom”.
Interesting, controversial, but for me largely predictable was the response of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Revolution. Being the representative of all Orthodox people to the Sultan, the current Patriarch, Gregory V, was forced to excommunicate all revolutionaries. This is a major source of controversy, since it cannot really be known if he actually agreed with the decision or simply did it to placate (unsuccessfully) the Sultan. It is well known that he was conservative, no friend of the Enlightenment and was troubled by the influx of european ideals and he had already performed similar excommunications of previous revolutionary movements. It is however argued that he acquiesced in order to give time to the Greeks of Constantinople to evacuate the city and avoid a massacre. Ultimately he failed and he was hanged at the main gate of the Patriarchate on Easter Sunday of 1821 (the gate has never been opened since). Massacres of Christians followed in several major cities.
Patriarch Gregory V is hanged, his body dragged in the streets and dumped in the Bosporus, where it is found by Greek sailors.
This situation has led to mixed feelings about the clergy during the Occupation and the Revolution since they can simultaneously be seen as both collaborators and freedom fighters. Regardless, the second narrative persisted after the London Protocol which officially founded the Hellenic State in 1830.
In the mean time, between the start of the Revolution and the establishment of the Greek State, the political leaders assembled several times and produced three provisional constitutions laying out the foundations of the new state. This is a point that cannot be stressed enough (especially since it goes contrary to the experience of Americans), but unlike the USA, the Greek State was founded on religious principles. Below are the opening articles of the first constitution of Epidaurus of 1822:
IN THE NAME OF THE HOLY AND INDIVISIBLE
The Greek Nation, being under the horrific Ottoman domination, not able to bear the heavy and unparalleled yoke of tyranny and having shaken it after great sacrifices, declares today through its legal representatives in a National Assembly, before God and Men “its Political Existence and Independence” in Epidaurus, on January 1st, 1822 and 1st year of the Independence.PROVISIONAL CONSTITUTION
PART I – SECTION I
i) The dominant Religion in the Hellenic Territory is the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ, but the Command of Greece tolerates every other Religion and its ceremonies and rituals are practised unimpeded.SECTION II
ON THE GENERAL RIGHTS OF THE INHABITANTS OF THE TERRITORY OF GREECE
ii) All inhabitants born in the territory of Greece that believe in Christ are Greeks and enjoy without differentiation all political rights.
Notice the preamble (where the Constitution is written in the name of the Trinity and not the Greek people), the mention of “dominant religion” (which persisted up to the current Constitution) and the definition of the Greek Citizen (which hinges on the religious identity, an obvious carry-over of the ottoman millet system). These points remain unchanged in all three provisional constitutions. The second (1823 in Astros) added the provision that Greek Citizen should be able to speak Greek. The third one (1827 in Troezen) added more citizenship categories for expatriates, but the religious clauses remained.
All things considered, the presence of the cross on the greek flag variants is more than justified.
The Reign of King Otto
All three provisional constitutions paved the way for the final official “Constitution” of the Kingdom of Greece of 1834 (put in quotation marks since it didn’t give any actual power or rights to the people). All mentions to religion are maintained and there are further religious regulations, as can be seen below. Oddly, this Constitution (along with the 1927 one) lack the preamble to the Trinity, which appears in all others. It should be noted that this “constitution” eventually led to the 1843 insurrection and the drafting of a new Constitution, but this is the last that spells out who is considered a Greek Citizen.
13. Greeks are:
i) Those native to the Greek Territory who believe in Christ;
ii) Those born to natives in foreign territories and believing in the ancestral religion;
iii) Those that hold the dominant religion, speakers of the greek or foreign language, who came to Greece’s aid and fought with the natives during the holy struggle for liberty;
iv) Those that hold the dominant religion, came a year earlier in Greece and have a steady residence in a community, live off their art or craft, if they renounce their citizenship of another State;
v) Foreigners who believe in Christ, who came and fought with the natives for three years in the fight for freedom, have proof of their actions and their honest demeanour and have wed a Greek woman; but they have to renounce their citizenship and protection of another force.
vi) Those who will henceforth be accepted as Greeks by the laws that will appear herein.
Despite all these references to religion, King Otto, a Bavarian national sent over by the foreign Powers to reign over Greece, was not exactly friendly towards the church establishment. The Constitution also provided for a 5-member committee for ecclesiastical matters, practically appointed by the King, allowed for the use of church property for the building of schools and rendered the salaries of priests an obligation of the State (an important point that persists and is debated even today).
If this wasn’t enough to upset the Church, the King immediately targeted the country’s monasteries. A census in 1833 found 593 monasteries and a law was passed closing those with less than 6 monks, i.e. 412 of them. In 1834 another law closed almost all female convents as well, allowing only for 3 in the entire country. The property of the closed monasteries was nationalized.
While the measure was certainly meant to fill the coffers of a State in dire need of cash and lands for the destitute, the way it was perpetrated caused the Church to believe and propagandize that the King meant to cut off the public from monasticism and attack their national identity. It also caused incalculable damage in terms of destroyed heirlooms. Regardless, the money from this scheme vanished mid-route and only a trickle reached the royal coffers.
Between 1833 and 1844 there was also a strong presence of protestant missionaries, though their moderate success and their boasting of it was met with extreme hostility. Chief missionary Jonas King (and later US ambassador in Athens)was even tried for blasphemy twice and his writings anathematized, though he managed to return to Greece (where he died) thanks to diplomatic pressure from the US. This marked the beginning of a strong climate against proselytism targeted at the Orthodox in Greece, and an anti-proselytism clause has been included in all Greek Constitutions since 1864.
In 1833 again, the Church of Greece is declared autocephalus, according to a Church Constitution written by Theoklitos Pharmakidis and Georg Ludwig von Maurer. While it could be argued that this was necessary, since the Patriarchate was still under ottoman rule, others considered this a ploy to nationalize the Church. This caused a schism until 1850, when the Patriarchate granted autocephaly. The Church of Greece would also later absorb the metropolitans of the Ionian Islands, Thessaly and Epirus in 1864 and 1882.
This situation, along with other displays of autocratic rule, lead to a coup demanding a proper Constitution, which Otto could not but grant in 1843 (it’s certainly no accident that Otto’s reign is commonly referred to as “Bavarocracy”). The bloodless coup happened in front of the palace, at what today is called “Syntagma” (=Constitution Square). The palace today is used as the Parliament. Oddly, the autocephaly of the Church of Greece was retained and the Church Constitution left largely intact.
A final point of contention would be the utter disdain of the Government for the country’s byzantine past. All new major building were styled according to neoclassical architecture, as the country thirsted for european elegance and a link to the much celebrated ancient greek past. Even churches where similarly styled, introducing an entirely foreign element to religious worship. It was also an architectural and archaeological crime since, for instance, as many as 72 byzantine churches in Athens were destroyed for the construction the new metropolitan temple (for the materials and to liquidate the plots they occupied; for instance the church of Kapnikarea was spared by accident).
Virgin Mary Kapnikarea
one of the few surviving byzantine churches in the centre of Athens, at the start of Ermou Street
Of course, all that only in the beginning. As the “Megali Idea”, the “grand idea” of reunifying all areas with Greeks still under Ottoman rule began to coalesce, the return to Byzantium, the grand Greek Empire and the last time when Hellenism was unified under a single political entity, was inevitable. This led to the largely mindless copying of byzantine elements in ecclesiastical architecture and the current situation in church-building.
All this would seal, even more than it already was, the belief that the Greek national identity and Orthodoxy go hand in hand… and that foreigners are always on the lookout for opportunities to destroy both. Paranoia, true, but not without historical foundations.
1876 marked the emergence of a novel phenomenon in the Greek Orthodox Church: para-ecclesiastical groups generally styled after the protestant missionary bible study groups and possibly influenced by the pietistic movements. Several catalysts for the phenomenon have been proposed: the emergence of the bourgeoisie in Greece and its desire for propriety, the enlargement of parishes to impractical sizes for actual community relations, the admiration for the conviction of protestant missionaries (often praised even by Church officials) and their methodical approach to religion.
In 1876 Apostolos Makrakis established the first para-ecclesiastical group called “School of the Word”. Makrakis had extensive prior preaching activities in Athens and was even arrested for speaking against the local Masons, gathering the support of people and clergy. Following a scandal with some bishops who bribed their way to their thrones, his and his supporter’s opposition earned him an anathema, but also public admiration, which led him to four unsuccessful political campaigns to enter the parliament. The two sister organizations to the “School”, “John the Baptist” and “John the Theologian”, survive to this day.
One of Markakis’ supporters, archimandrite Efsevios Matthopoulos, started the “Fraternity of Theologians, Life” ecclesiastical group later in 1907, incorporated as a civil society. The society was organized as a monastic order, but with the purpose of training preachers. Later the society included a publishing house and opened up several “Catechism Schools” (similar to Sunday Schools) and would become influential enough to gain significant inroads into politics. A part of “Life” would split off in the 60s to form an even more conservative “Fraternity of Theologians, The Saviour”. Both groups are active today.
While doctrinally orthodox, these groups have been accused of promoting a calvinistic and pietistic approach to soteriology, lost in moralistic approaches to salvation and an obsession with outward appearance.
The “Evangelika” Riots
The Gospel Riots occurred in 1901, but their seeds had been planted a lot sooner. The megaloideatic, nationalist sentiments had been rising all through the 19th century and erupted in 1897 between Greece and the Ottoman Empire over Cretan autonomy. The war was humiliating for Greece, as were the steep cease-fire terms. During this time, Queen Olga realized that the common people were unable to read the Bible (an anecdote has her giving out Bibles to wounded soldiers, who refused because they could not understand the ancient Greek text.)
The Queen had already circulated some copies of gospel translations in demotic Greek prior to 1901, published with her own money, with limited success and no incident, despite a standing prohibition of the Church against the translation of the Bible in any language. The riots errupted when the newspaper “Acropolis” decided to start publishing the translated gospels in serialized form in October 1901.
The pre-existing linguistic problem of Greece also played a role. Namely, the issue on whether a linguistic reform should take place, replacing the more archaic “Katharevousa” with the Demotic, the language of everyday use. This also meant the division of the conservatives and the progressives on this issue, exasperated by the nationalistic fervour after the 1897 defeat and the blind admiration of what was understood as the ancient greek glory.
The Queen’s slavic roots (she was of russian descent) also permitted the political opponents of the monarchy a chance for an underhanded attack, accusing her of trying to corrupt the Greeks, the translation being an attempt of slavic influence.
Even though the publisher of the “Acropolis” had received permission for the publication of the Gospels from the Archbishop of Athens and the Dean of the University, in November 2nd, 1901, all the aforementioned factors coalesced in a first minor riot of students that stormed the newspaper offices threatening to set the place on fire. During the next two days rival newspapers galvanized the people, raising the issue from linguistic to national; an attack at the ancestral language, slavic danger, enemies of the homeland. The rioters pleaded with the Patriarch Joachim III to excommunicate the translator, Alexandros Pallis, and to remove the Archbishop. Things escalated when some attempted to force their way into the Parliament and the Archbishopric. On November 8th, an assembled crowd turned violent and the police lost control of the situation and fired into the crowd.
All this mess resulted in the resignation of the government and the Archbishop Prokopios, further strained the Russian Queen’s relations with the heir’s Spanish wife and caused another smaller riot 1903, when someone attempted to present a translated version of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”. It also necessitated once again a new clause in the 1911 Constitution, ordering the preservation of the integrity of the biblical texts and forbidding the translation of the Bible in any language without the permission of the Patriarch. This was changed in 1975, requiring the permission of the Patriarch only for “official” translations. However, translations of the Bible circulate freely today.
The Macedonian Struggle
The Macedonian Struggle was the precursor of the Balkan Wars and took place between 1904 and 1908 in the ottoman occupied Macedonia mainly between Greeks and Bulgarians vying for influence in a region that was justifiably considered to be the next territorial loss for the Porte. The Bulgarian Exarchate’s increasing influence, which had unilaterally split off of the Ecumenical Patriarchate 1872, also contributed in the start of the hostilities. In an attempt to erode the greek national identity of the region, the Bulgarian paramilitaries committed terrorist acts, especially targeting Greek teachers and priests, which added a significant number of non-canonized neo-martyrs to the consciousness of the Orthodox Greeks. The Greek Orthodox archbishoprics also supported the greek side during the Struggle, materially and spiritually. Eventually the Greek side succeeded in curbing the bulgarian activities and Macedonia was absorbed by Greece after the Balkan Wars.
The true nature of the Struggle and who was the “aggressor” is still up for debate, especially since the events were highly mythologized in the 1940s (and, unsurprisingly, the Greeks were cast as the defending party) and I have seen suggestions that the Struggle was entirely one of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, though in the nationalistic climate of the era, that seems unlikely. Communion between the Ecumenical and the Bulgarian Patriarchate would not be restored till 1953.
The Special Status of Mount Athos
After the Balkan Wars, the peninsula of Athos and by extension the Athonic monastic community was annexed by the Greek State as an autonomous region under hellenic sovereignty. The Athonic Community is practically independent and the State intervenes only in matters of Justice. The fact that all monks automatically become Greek citizens is also highly problematic. The article of the Constitution that deals with this has remained practically unchanged since 1927 and reads as follows:
- The peninsula of Athos, from the Great Vigla and beyond, which comprises the area of the Holy Mount, is, according to its ancient advantageous regime, a self-governing part of the Greek State, whose sovereignty over it remains intact. Spiritually the Holy Mount is under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. All those who live there, either monks or novitiates, become greek natives with no other formalities.
- The Holy Mount is governed, according to its regime, by the 20 holy monasteries, among which the entire Athos peninsula is divided, which territory is inalienable. Authority is exercises by representatives of the holy monasteries, who comprise the holy community. No change in the governing system is permitted, no to the number of the monasteries of the Holy Mount, not in their hierarchal order or their relation to their subordinate possessions. It is forbidden for those of other denomination or schismatics to reside in the Holy Mount.
- The precise determination of athonic regimes and the way they function is determined by the Holy Mount Charter, which, under the auspices of the representative of the State, is compiled and voted for by the holy monasteries and is ratified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Parliament.
- The precise observance of the athonic regimes is under the highest custodianship of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the spiritual part and the custodianship of the State for the administrative part, to which belongs exclusively keeping public order and security.
- The aforementioned authorities of the State are exercises through a commandant, whose rights and duties are determined by law. A law also determines the judiciary authority exercised by the monastical authorities and the holy community and the customs and tax advantages of the Holy Mount.
Needless to say that any attempt to seriously change the regime of Mount Athos will result in a major diplomatic incident between Greece and all orthodox countries (especially Russia), not to mention enraged Orthodox Greeks. An issue has arisen in the EU many times due to the fact that women are forbidden from entering Mount Athos, but given the special regime of the peninsula, it’s unlikely that the issue will be resolved any time soon.
Adoption of the Gregorian Calendar
Greece continued to use the old Julian calendar (like the majority of the non-catholic countries) well into the 20th century, up to February 16th, 1923. That day it switched to the Gregorian calendar and called it March 1st. The Church of Greece kept the old calendar, which caused the celebration of the Revolution on March 25th not to coincide with the celebration of the Annunciation for the first time. Thus it became obvious that the two calendars could not co-exist and the Church of Greece, with the approval of the Patriarchate, switched to the Gregorian calendar as well on March 10th/23rd, 1924, except for Easter and feasts that depend on it, ensuring that all Orthodox would celebrate Easter together.
This caused a general upheaval since the change was not well-received and considered a submission to papal authority. Priests that refused to follow the new calendar were persecuted and defrocked and this climate of persecution coalesced into a conservative movement called “Genuine Orthodox Christians” that is not in communion with the Church of Greece and any church that is in communion with it. They later suffered an internal schism themselves, but are still active today and represent the most aggressively conservative elements of the religious Greeks.
Regardless, the old calendar is still respected in Greece since it is still in ecclesiastical use by all Orthodox Patriarchates, Churches and the monasteries of Mount Athos.
Interbellum and WWII
After the military mess that was the start of the 20th century, Greece emerged none the worse for wear: The two Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the Great War (1914-1918) and the ruinous Asia Minor Campaign (1919-1922) left Greece with almost twice the territory it had, but also a huge influx of refugees due the Turkish invasion of the Smyrna Zone and the coordinated extermination of the majority of the Greek population that remained in the remnants of the Ottoman Empire that became Turkey.
The large amount of people with no property for housing and cultivation led to a massive expropriation program between 1917 and 1930, which targeted heavily monastic properties. It is claimed that the Church never received more than 4% of the owed amount and is considered one of the reasons for the fact that the State pays the clergy’s salaries to this day; this, however, also benefited the Church given that this law also counted as a deed of ownership for the remaining plots of land, which is not entirely certain that legally belonged to the Church in the first place.
In 1930 another law was passed for the liquidation of further more plots of land owned by monasteries. The monasteries were given in return future securities, but their value evaporated due to WWII and the German Occupation Loans. The State also took over the salaries of the clergy for as long as the surplus from the liquidation would suffice (though it is commonly thought that it would be ad infinitum). The same law also closed down all monasteries with 3 monks or less.
In 1936 the Ioannis Metaxas’ dictatorship came to power. The regime was styled after the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, but without the imperialism and with an emphasis on religion and the restoration of the glory of the hellenic civilization. In 1938 the regime intervened in the election of the Archbishop of Athens, elevating Chrysanthus on the throne, in an attempt to control the Church. Regardless, the Metaxas regime was short-lived, since Germany would occupy Greece by April 1941.
Winston Churchill and Archbishop Damaskinos, after the latter had become Regent. (source)
The Occupation, a tragic and monstrous period in greek history, in the long run proved beneficial for the Church’s reputation among the people. For starters, Bulgaria was put in charge of Central and Eastern Macedonia and Thrace and the differences that caused the Macedonian Struggle in the first place re-emerged, as Bulgaria became more and more certain that it would get to keep their possessions after the war. This resulted in a new wave of neo-martyrs who did not cooperate with the occupying forces, not only in the bulgarian zone, but also in the german anti-jewish pogrom. Of note are the activities of Archbishop Damaskinos, who refused to turn over lists of Greek Jews and issued fake baptism certificates to Jews, despite threats against his life (he was later proclaimed “righteous among the nations”). The official Church was also quite hostile towards the collaborative greek government.
Civil War and the Aftermath
Soon after the German Occupation ended, the Civil War erupted in Greece. The belligerents were the standing Greek Army and the Democratic Army of Greece (controlled by the Communist Party and supported by the Soviet Union) and the War is widely considered the opening conflict of the Cold War. The Church was overwhelmingly in favor of the Greek Government, since the Communists were well known for their anti-religious perspective, though the DAG did have a few members of the clergy in its support.
Armed priest in the paramilitary “Units of Countryside Security” in 1948 during the Civil War, in the Trikala-Grevena region.
(from the book “Thessaly 1881-1891, 100 years of history”, Kedros pub. by Maroula Kliafa)
In 1945, just after the German Occupation ended and the Civil War was about to start, a 17-year-old girl called Athanasia Samari started claiming that she was receiving messages from the Virgin Mary on her chest, after having seen her in the fields of rural Elis. The girl, suffering from dermatographic urticaria (a condition where scratches on the skin can leave it inflamed for several hours) soon started being venerated as a saint, throngs of people swarming to see her miraculous and completely misspelled messages. During the Civil War she even pretended to be dead and when the crowds assembled she rose from the dead to deliver a powerful anti-communist sermon. She eventually got married, moved to Athens and became known as “St. Athanasia of Egaleo”. During the military Junta she also supported the dictatorship and spoke against the monarchy. Her cult of personality was influential enough that she attracted the attention of not only the Church, but the Government. She was tried several times, but never convicted and she ended up with a huge fortune in cash, fields (cultivated gratis by her believers), livestock and a nursing home. She was also accused that she used the latter for extorting property from the elderly, but exonerated on that charge as well. She is still alive today, though in extremely poor health, her institutions still thriving.
An exposé on the activities of St. Athanasia of Egaleo by Kostas Hardavelas, around 2010 (in Greek, but contains several images)
In 1952 the State decided that there were still needs for lands for cultivation for the destitute and signed a contract with the Church. The deal was the Church would give up 4/5 of fields and 2/3 of grazing lands the monasteries still possessed (and had already been characterized as liquidatable by the 1930 law) and the State gave in return plots and building inside major cities and a certain amount of money. The total value of the transaction was 97.6 billion drachmas (15 billion paid in cash) in return for about 170,000 stremmata of cultivated land (~42,000 acres) and 600,000 stremmata of pastures (~148,000 acres) It is also a popular myth that the State’s obligation to the salaries of the clergy stems from this contract, but this is untrue. This contract is also responsible for the fact that the Church ended up owning an obscene amount of real estate in the centres of all the major cities of Greece, since the early 60s mark a period of acute and rapid urbanization for Greece.
April 21st, 1967 marks the third major coup d’etat in modern greek history, the longest and possibly the bloodiest, with consequences that ripple all the way to the present. The Junta, as it came to be commonly known in Greece, was undoubtedly caused by the Truman Doctrine; the Junta’s main goal was to curtail a perceived “soviet invasion” in the country’s academia, press and military and its policies were all aimed at rooting out Communists, perhaps with more fervour than McCarthy in the US, turning the country into a police state, though not isolationist (tourism was still a fiscal necessity).
As with the Metaxas regime, the Junta was also heavily invested in the religious sphere. It’s main motto was “Greece for Christian Greeks”, while it also borrowed from christian and pagan mythology, such as “Christ is risen, Greece is risen” and its use of the phoenix rising from its ashes as its main logo. The Church, which had already supported the Army during the Civil War against the Communists was inclined to lend its support to the regime, which made sure to stake its claim on the Synod of the Church of Greece.
In the foreground from left to right:
•Georgios Papadopoulos (prime minister of the Junta),
•Archbishop Ieronimos I,
•Stylianos Pattakos (member of the Junta; the bold one),
•Priest Dionysios Roussas (current Metropolitan of Thessaloniki)
(image from the cover of the book “Scourge of God” by M. Vasilakis)
In 1967 the Junta gathered a group of 8 hierarchs, a “Select Synod”, which installed a new Archbishop of Athens, Ieronimos I. This was followed with the installation of various friendly archpriests to metropolitan thrones, further skewing the composition of the Synod of the Church of Greece. Some were pre-emptively dethroned and replaced; few remained to offer spiritual opposition to the Junta, though of the mildest sort, since outright opposition probably meant defrocking and exile along with the rest of the political prisoners. Despite the fact that he was accused of being anticanonical, his election was never reversed, not any of the regime’s choices for the country’s metropolises.
An interesting product of this period was the Metropolitan of Florina, Avgoustinos Kandiotis. He was reportedly enthroned at the dictators’ request, but he soon became a vocal critic of theirs and the Archbishop in ecclesiastical matters. Ultra-conservative, he was charismatic enough to gather a cult of personality around him, which he used to good effect whenever he discovered breaches of morality. For instance, he was notorious for using his followers to violently oppose the 1952 Miss Greece beauty pageant. He also published his own periodical, bashing indiscriminately anyone who fell morally short in his eyes, to the point where many church officials and theologians were merely glad to be able to avoid his attention. He died in 2010.
Another interesting point of the 60s and 70s was a major shift in the theological approach, originating from the Faculty of Theology in Thessaloniki, which placed greater emphasis in the early and medieval patristic tradition; the main aim being the expulsion of protestant and catholic influences that had been absorbed thus far, especially during the Ottoman Occupation. This patristic revival continues to this day and Thessaloniki has slowly become the theological centre of the Balkans; the proximity of the Athonic Community contributes greatly to this.
The Junta would eventually collapse after the scandalous failed coup against the President and Archbishop of Cyprus, Makarios, which led to invasion of Cyprus by the turkish army and the continuing occupation of the northern part of the island to this day. It also had the unfortunate by-product of the oppressed Leftists having to coexist with the collaborators of the Junta and those who merely stood by and watched; an issue that still scars the hellenic society to this day. The widespread anti-americanism in Greece can also probably be blamed to this period.
The Charter of the Church of Greece
The restoration of democracy in Greece and its entry in the European Economic Community (the precursor of the EU) marked the beginning of a major fracture between the Church and the State. For the newly restored democratic government, one of the first orders of business was to settle ecclesiastical matters with a refreshed Charter of the Church of Greece, enshrined into law in 1977.
It is mostly dry stuff, regarding ecclesiastical jurisdiction, administration, hierarchy etc. with minor changes made in 1983 and 1999. Interesting points include the following articles:
- Art.2: “The Church of Greece cooperates with the State in matters of common interest, like the christian education of the youth, religious services in the military, the elevation of the institution of marriage and family, the care of those in need of protection, preserving holy artefacts and ecclesiastical and christian monuments, instituting new religious holidays; it also asks the State’s protection when religion is under attack.”
- Art.44: Reaffirms the 1933 institution of religious courts for matters of ecclesiastical differences. These are exclusively for members of the clergy and don’t have jurisdiction over civilians.
- Art. 46-48: These articles set the basics for ecclesiastical property, including the entity “Organization for the Management of Church Property”. Most of the specifics are determined by further legislation.
- Art. 49-50: On marriage and divorce. An interesting point is that performing a wedding without proper authorization from an Arch-priest is punishable by a wage cut and up to a year in prison (and the wedding is annulled).
I believe this shows clearly how entrenched is the Church in legislation and how deep the entanglement of Church and State goes. Also, I should emphasize (though I mention it again further down the article) that the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece is NOT the leader of the Church, but merely the chairman of the Holy Synod; he doesn’t even have ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the entire country.
The 3rd Hellenic Republic
In 1981 Andreas Papandreou and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) rose to power, leading to sweeping reforms in family law.
The most important change of all was the concept of “civil marriage” which was unknown in Greece up to that point. Papandreou was eventually unable to completely cancel the legal validity of the religious marriage (and keep it only as a secondary option for those who wanted it), but was able to have both types of marriage as having equal validity before the law. The Church never accepted the institution of the civil marriage and up to this day refers to it as “prostitution” and “adultery”. The new family law also had many gender equality provisions: dowries were abolished (and reverted all existing dowry contract contents to the wife), recognized the concept of mutual consent divorce and allowed the wives to legally keep their own surnames.
In 1987 PASOK made the final attempt to utilize the remaining real estate in the hands of the monasteries. The “Tritsis Law” (after the minister that brought the law to Parliament) was violently opposed by the Church, which claimed that it’s property was being illegally seized. Given its prior exchanges with the State, they could hardly be blamed. The Church eventually fought against the law, first with popular support (mottos of the era included “hands off the church” and “the land to the people, not the parties”) and then legally; the matter was brought before the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in its favour: the monasteries should either keep their property or be reimbursed. The Government dropped the issue and the law was left inactive.
Footage from the demonstrations against the law in 1987. Speakers (timestamps):
Archbishop of Athens Serafeim (2’07”)
Metropolitan of Florina Avgoustinos Kandiotis (3’29”)
Metropolitan of Volos Christodoulos (3’45”) future Archbishop of Athens
In 1992 the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the emergence of the currently named “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” caused a major stir in Greece and in the Greek Diaspora abroad. Spearheaded by the Church, major protest rallies were organized, including one with 1 million claimed participants in Thessaloniki. This marks the very first attempt of the Church to actively insert itself in matters of politics and foreign affairs (something Archbishop Christodoulos would become famous for).
The speech of the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, Panteleimon II in Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki
It should also be noted that the period 1983-1994 marked the rise to popularity of elder monk Paisios of Mount Athos. A mostly non-descript monk, mildly popular to the visitors of the Athonic Community while he was alive, he became extremely popular after his death when telemarketers selling conspiratorial books started quoting prophecies of his (of doubtful paternity and accuracy). This, combined by the fact that he was uncharacteristically buried outside Mount Athos (which made it possible for even women to visit his tomb), reports of miracles (with each one trying to outdo the previous) and the climate of the post-2008 austerity galvanized the masses even more in his favour and made him a permanent and easily recognizable fixture of the national zeitgeist. In 2015 he was canonized to the surprise of no one.
Archbishop Christodoulos Paraskevaidis is perhaps the most infamous head of the Church of Greece. He was raised to the throne in 1998, succeeding Archbishop Serafeim, and soon became apparent that he intended to be much more than just a religious leader. As his supporters would claim posthumously, they saw him as an ethnarch. His term can be summed up as conservative, nationalist and populist.
One of his first acts in office was the support of Orthodox Serbia in the Yugoslav War. His support also stoked the anti-NATO sentiment in the country (already prevalent due to the pre-existing anti-American sentiments of the Greek people).
Archbishop Christodoulos’ petition form. Ironically his ID card number starts with 666, which was used by his religious opponents to discredit him. (source)
In 2000 the Greek Government decided that it was time to remove the religion field from the identity cards, as a violation of individual human rights. This was received as an assault against the Church and the greco-orthodox spirit of the country and Christodoulos organized rallies in all major cities against the decision. Mottos of the era included “Orthodoxy or Death”, a mirror of the revolutionary “Freedome or Death”. He also organized a nation-wide petition, which gathered some 2 million signatures, to demand a referendum on whether the inclusion of the religion field should be optional, however the Government did not relent and the issue was dropped after a while. Christodoulos has been on record stating that the removal of the religion from the ID cards was at the demand of the Jews.
In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited Athens and subsequently met with the Archbishop to exchange pleasantries and an apology for the way Catholics historically treated the Orthodox. While this was hailed as one of the first orthodox victories since the Middle Ages, the meeting earned Christodoulos a slap from an Old Calendarist who considered the meeting with the Pope a betrayal.
His term was liberally sprinkled with more major and minor acts of intervention in politics, under the excuse that only the enemies of the Church would want it cut off from society. These interventions were commonly made from the pulpit and his own sermons were enhanced by similar sermons from other conservative church officials throughout Greece. He also made a major opening to the youth of the country saying “come just as you are”, dispelling some of the pseudo-piety attributed to church-going and making him extremely popular with the youth, which made the current rise in religiosity all the easier. He died in 2008 and was succeeded by the decidedly milder Archbishop Ieronimos II.
The church of St. Nicolas at Lake Vistonis, owned by the Vatopedi Monastery
During Christodoulos’ term (though not relevant to him at all) a major scandal transpired involving the Vatopedi Monastery of Mount Athos and certain State Officials, which rocked Greek public opinion for several months and exemplifies the entanglement of Church and State in Greece.
The Monastery supposedly owned the entirety of Lake Vistonis and part of the lake-shore, as proven by some byzantine imperial documents and a deed provided by the government during the German Occupation. Since the area was protected under the Natura Act and could not be used, it is alleged that the Monastery came in contact with State officials who exchanged the lake for several pieces of property in the former Olympic Village. Several offshore companies were also involved in the transaction. The deal was supposedly finalized in 2003.
Starting from 2008, when the scandal came to light, several officials were impeached, trials pending, as was the Monastery’s prior. As of 2014 a case against 14 people in total has not yet been tried.
A little after his death, Greece was also forced by the European Court of Human Rights to offer (for the first time) secular alternatives to the religious oaths used in courts of law by witnesses. This was also expanded into a secular alternative for the oath used when someone is sworn into office. This was the last major change in the country’s path to secularization.
The previous essay is about 9,000 words and I’m still not entirely sure it’s enough to explain to a foreigner the complex relationship between the Orthodox Church, Greek Society and the Hellenic State. Thankfully, the current situation in Greece can be described in somewhat fewer words. So, where do we stand today?
The first glaring consequence of this long history can be seen in the current Constitution. The text was written in 1975 and has gone through 3 amendments, but still retains all the references to religion existing before the Junta: It opens with the same preamble to the Trinity as the 1844 and contains several articles dedicated entirely to the relations of Church and State, the exercise of religion and religious education. They read as follows (article 105 about the regime of Mount Athos can be read here.)
- The dominant religion in Greece is the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ. The Orthodox Church of Greece, recognizing as its head our Lord Jesus Christ, exists inseparably united doctrinally with the Great Church of Constantinople and every other Church of Christ of the same denomination; it follows without fault, like them, the holy apostolic and synodic rules and holy traditions. It is autocephalus, governed by the Holy Synod of the active Arch-hierarchs and the Ongoing Holy Synod that comes from the former and is assembled as ordained by the Charter of the Church, following the provision of the Patriarchal Tome of June 29th, 1850 and the Synodic Act of September 4th, 1928.
- The ecclesiastical regime that exists in some areas of the State does not contradict the provisions of the previous paragraph.
- The text of the Holy Bible is preserved unaltered. Official translation in any other linguistic form is prohibited without the approval of the Autocephalus Church of Greece and the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople.
- The freedom of religious consciousness is inviolable. The enjoyment of personal and political rights does not depend on anyone’s religious beliefs.
- Every known religion is free and all that pertain to its worship are practised without impediment under the protection of the laws. Worship cannot offend public order or the common mores. Proselytism is prohibited.
- The celebrants of all known religions are under the auspices of the State and have the same responsibilities towards it as the celebrants of the dominant religion.
- No one can, because of his religious beliefs, to be exempted from his responsibilities towards the State or refuse to abide by the laws.
- No oath can be imposed without a law that also defines its formalities.
- Art, Science, Research and Teaching are free; their development and promotion is an obligation of the State. Academic freedom and the freedom of teaching do not negate the duty of obeying the Constitution.
- Education is a basic mission of the State and aims at the moral, mental, professional and physical development of the Greeks, the development of national and religious consciousness and their development into free and responsible citizens.
If you have been paying attention so far you can see echoes of Greece’s past. Art.3§1 hails back to the birth of the Greek State as a christian country. Art.3§3 is a direct result of the 1901 Gospel Riots. Art.13§1 is merely politically correct and contradicts Art.16§2. Art.13§2 is a remnant from the early 19th c. protestant missionary threat against the Church.There’s also Art.59 which mentions the oath taken by the MPs when they are sworn into office (with references to the Trinity), but I don’t put them here since there have been laws instituting secular alternatives.
So, unlike the United States, their secular constitution and their constitutionally mandated separation of Church and State, Greece is NOT a secular republic, but a constitutionally christian country. Atheists in the US have to merely fight a war of preservation and of violations of the Constitution; us Greek counterparts have to fight an up-hill battle against an outdated Constitution that should have been changed years ago; the only arguments being the international paradigm shift in developed countries and nebulous references to Human Rights (which, to most Greeks, might as well be as unintelligible as the Old Testament).
The Penal Code
The greek penal code follows in the steps of the Constitution and has several provisions to defend what is termed as “religious peace”. It basically includes two blasphemy articles, one article against disturbing religious gathering and desecrating holy places (quoted below) and one article on desecrating the dead (which I omit, since I consider pretty straightforward). The following articles have surfaced again in the public discussion; they used to be sporadically implemented, but in the last two years there have been several cases that involve them.
DISTURBANCE OF RELIGIOUS PEACE
- Anyone who publicly and maliciously blasphemes God by any means is punished with imprisonment for up to two years.
- Except for cases under paragraph 1, anyone who publicly displays a lack of respect towards things divine by blasphemy is punished with imprisonment up to three months.
Cursing against religions
- Anyone who publicly and maliciously curses against the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ or any other religion tolerated in Greece, in any way, is punished with up to two years in prison.
Disturbing religious gatherings
- Anyone who maliciously attempts to prevent or intends to disturb a religious gathering of worship or veneration tolerated by the State is punished with up to two years in prison.
- The same penalty applies to anyone who, inside a church or a place meant for a religious gathering tolerated by the State, acts in an offensively inappropriate manner.
The following cases have made the news for several days at a time and clashed with the greek notion of religious tolerance: “Take our religious beliefs seriously; we’ll never do the same”.
- Laertis Vasileiou and his troupe had to face a blasphemy accusation, an outraged mob, MPs of the “Golden Dawn” ultra-nationalist party and threats of lawsuits against their version of the “Corpus Christi” theatrical play.
- Dionysis Kavalieratos, an artist, along with a gallery owner, had to face a trial for blasphemy, brought on them by Old Calendarists, for 3 pencil sketches. The accusers went to the gallery knowing the pieces were there, so they could get purposefully offended.
- Philippos Loizos, aka Elder Pastitsios, was convicted of serial malicious blasphemy, because of a facebook page which parodied the religious circus that has developed around Monk Paisios from Mount Athos (who has now been canonized).
The Religious Landscape
The majority of the population in Greece are Greek Orthodox. There are several other religions present, but none as widespread and most have to suffer stereotypes, bias and discrimination. If the numbers below are accurate, the remaining population that is nominally Orthodox Christians are around 95%, though the 2010 Eurobarometer measure “belief in God” at 79%, “belief in a spirit or life force” at 16% and complete atheism at 2%.
- Catholics, around 50,000 people concentrated mainly in the Cyclades, the Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese. Recently the number has risen to 200,000 due to immigration. Another 5,000 in Athens are Uniate Catholics. The public opinion is pretty much indifferent with Catholics, while the Pope is not well-loved, especially in conservative circles.
- Protestants number around 112,000. These are broken down as 30,000 Evangelicals, 12,000 Assemblies of God Pentecostals, 20,000 Free Apostolic Pentecostals and 50,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Protestant denomiations are generally well-tolerated, with the exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are generally reviled for the proselytism attempts. They are also considered unpatriotic since they do not bear arms in the Army, if they serve at all.
- Armenians are mostly refugees from the turkish genocide against them in the 1920s. Today there are around 30,000 left.
- Dodecatheism, i.e. classical hellenic polytheism, has made a comeback in the past decades. They number around 2,000 practising members, but their sympathizers are around 100,000. They are generally considered “quirky” or “cute”.
- Judaism has markedly shrunk in Greece after the German Occupation. Only 7,500 Jews remain in the country and generally have to face prejudice, especially with the current Israeli foreign policies.
- Islam in Greece used to be concentrated in the Thrace region and numbers around 100,000 Greek Muslims. Immigrants have raised the number by approximately 250,000. The recent events in the muslim world have produced severe bias against them and they still don’t have an actual mosque in Athens. The greek opinion of Muslims is also heavily influenced by the bad relations Greece has had historically with Turkey.
Atheists, while not particularly despised, mainly due to the fact that Greeks are used to viewing atheism as part of marxism, are still viewed with suspicion, especially when they eschew the religious elements of greek traditions. i.e. they’re viewed as not entirely Greek, or overly influenced by Western culture (something often expressed with derogatory terms like “silly little Americans” or “stupid Francs”; recently the term “foggy intellectuals” has hit mainstream as well).
Life as a typical Orthodox in Greece
Being in the majority, Orthodoxy is ubiquitous in Greece, infusing all aspects of public life.
Greeks become nominal members of the Church within a year of their birth. Infant baptisms are the norm and people who opt not to baptise their children are seen as frivolously endangering their child’s soul. Baptisms are public affairs that typically involve many guests and a celebratory meal afterwards. The child’s godparents are doctrinally obligated to teach the child the basics of the religion, but today their obligations are limited to gifts on holidays. Up to a few years ago a baptism was the only way for a child to be assigned a name. Today it’s enough for the parents to fill out a form at the Registrar’s Office.
Birthdays are commonly celebrated as in other western countries, but an equally important time for celebration is the “nameday”, the day when the Church celebrates the memory of the saint the child is named after. Since the name and the day of celebration is common knowledge, this a good opportunity for socializing for people who do not know each other well.
The first exposure of the child to the religion happens at home, but the religious education becomes systematic in school. Religious Education is in the curriculum from the first grade in elementary school till the final grade of high school and has always been strongly denominational compulsory for everyone except Muslims or (more recently) members of other religions. Today, at least in theory, a child can be exempted from RE with a simple form regardless of religion, but the issue is still disputed. Religious themes naturally bleed into other subjects as well (such as literature and -oddly- even biology). Every school year starts with a blessing ceremony and every school day starts with a prayer (typically a recitation of “Our Father”) and in elementary school might also end with a prayer (depending on the teacher). The school also visits the church on a regular basis; at least once before major holidays (when I was in elementary school in the 80s my school went to church every other Friday). Extracurricular religious education in Church sponsored Sunday Schools or some para-ecclesiastical group is rare, but not uncommon, and is usually a mark of a conservative family. By the time the child reaches adulthood he has been thoroughly infused with religious influence.
“Marriage” in Greece means getting married in church. While the civil equivalent exists since the 80s, people mostly opt for the religious ceremony which is dressed with a large variety of local customs, though a large reception with all the acquaintances of the couple AND the couples’ parents are invited. The current economic crisis has now limited the size of receptions and forced many people to get married with a civil ceremony (until they can afford a “proper” religious wedding). The Church, of course, doesn’t recognize the civil wedding and considers those married that way “in prostitution” and “adultery”. Extra conservative priests also consider this a sign of withdrawal from the church and may even refuse to perform a funeral for such people.
Death is also surrounded with a variety of religious ceremonies and local customs. The funeral is typically followed by at least an offering of coffee and cookies or a meal. Memorial services are then performed three, nine and forty days after the funeral, on the first year anniversary of the death and then whenever the family desires it. Extra conservative priests (apart from the previously cited example) might also refuse to perform a funeral service for a child that was not baptised and someone who committed suicide.
Most of the aforementioned services include fees: either small fees (around 0.1€) for candles, a few euros for the donation box or (for weddings and baptisms) from 50 to several hundreds of euros, supposedly for church expenses, though most of the money line the priests’ pockets… tax free of course. This last custom was unfortunately started by the faithful themselves and has solidified as part of the etiquette. Refusing to pay is bad form and a sign of stinginess.
The religious calendar in the Orthodox Church begins in September. Important landmarks, which are also public holidays, include:
- Christmas is the first major holiday of the religious year, but is far less important than in Protestant countries. Still it includes the typical paraphernalia: christmas tree (or boat), gifts, turkey or ham, carolling, etc. Boxing Day (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) is also unofficially a holiday. Schools remain closed for two weeks, starting Christmas Eve until Epiphany.
- Santa Claus (or “Saint Basil” in Greece) brings gifts to the children on January 1st (not Christmas) and is an important religious holiday due to the celebration of the memory of St. Basil, an important hierarch of the Church.
- January 30th is dedicated to the saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom as the Three Hierarchs and Protectors of Letters and is thus a holiday for all educational institutions.
- Theofaneia (Epiphany) follows on January 6th and celebrates Jesus’ baptism in Jordan.
- The Easter Lent begins typically in mid-February and lasts till Easter Sunday. This period includes the orthodox equivalent of the Fat Thursday (or Mardi Gras) and Clean Monday (or Ash Monday) which is a public holiday.
- March 25th is the Greek Independence Day and also the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Annunciation.
- Easter Sunday is the most important holiday in the Orthodox Church and includes involved ceremonies and local customs, especially during the week leading up to it. Good Friday and the following Monday are public holidays (Easter is by default since it’s always on Sunday). Schools remain closed for two weeks: the Good Week and the following week.
- 50 days after Easter Sunday (which is always a Monday) the Church celebrates the Holy Spirit.
- August 15th is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and is a major holiday since the Virgin Mary is perhaps the most beloved religious figure in Greece. Since it’s in one of the hottest months of Summer, many people opt to take their summer holidays during this period.
- Individual towns observe public holidays on the day of celebration of their patron saint (e.g. Patras on St. Andrew’s or Thessaloniki on St. Demetrius’). The same holds true for professional groups who have a patron saint (e.g. Drivers on St. Christopher’s or the Airforce on the day of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael).
Actual church attendance outside these holidays is very low, though it has been rising in the years of the economic crisis. Participation in the sacraments is even lower: receiving communion is sporadic and usually limited on Christmas and Easter; confession (a compulsory sacrament) possibly rarer.
Church and State
The Autocephalus Church of Greece is the main organized church in the country. It’s head is the Holy Synod, which makes all the important decisions, and it’s chairman is the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece. He is not the leader of the Church though, neither administratively, nor spiritually. The Synod makes administrative decisions for the entire country, though each Metropolitan has absolute jurisdiction in his own Metropolis. The Church’s spiritual leader is the Ecumenical Patriarch, but he is nowhere near the status of the Pope, since only an Pan-Orthodox Ecumenical Synod can decide on matters of doctrine. The Patriarch is also marginally involved with the Metropoles of the areas annexed by Greece after 1912.
Up until the era of Archbishop Christodoulos, the church kept its own tail outside everyday politics and minded its own business and its charities. It did make sure to covertly support conservative politicians of what is quaintly referred to as “the Right of the Lord”, but nowhere near the level of direct intervention that appeared in the 2000s. During that period political messages from the pulpit became commonplace and still remain today, though the attitude of the new Archbishop has toned them down. Typical examples include the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki (with an interest in the FYROM naming dispute and recently opposing the liberal Mayor and his gestures of friendship to Turks, Jews and homosexuals), the Metropolitan of Piraeus (who often comments on matters of science and atheism) and the Metropolitan of Kalavryta (extra conservative, who was fervently opposed to the current SYRIZA government and made overtures to the Golden Dawn).
It should also be stressed that the Church in general (especially the monasteries) control an impressive amount of wealth, in cash, real estate (transformed from fields to now lucrative city properties in 1952) and precious metals (mainly gold and silver). Given the tax evasion orgies that have been going on in the past few decades, it’s impossible to determine what sorts of projects might have been funded by ecclesiastical entities. And while the Church operates many pointedly visible charities, it’s doubtful that more than a trickle of the Church’s money is actually spent to aid the poor; most of the money come from donations.
From their side, the politicians realize well enough the Church’s ability to influence people’s opinions and many make sure not to piss off the Church too much. Even the current, supposedly atheist Prime Minister made several hypocritical gestures of good will during his campaign. Even if not outright religious, most will fake a certain level of piety, just above the average for the Greek society. Naturally scandals and instances of corruption and entanglement are so common that didn’t even raise an eyebrow (till the economic crisis hit and the people became less tolerant of instances of corruption).
The Church is also taxed lightly. Next to the fact that the clergy is still being paid by the State on extremely ambiguous historical and legal basis, the taxation of the monetary church income can be easily evaded; monasteries were exempt from VAT up to 2011; and the Church still doesn’t have to pay real estate taxes for all its properties (temples, educational buildings and charities are exempt since 2008 for all religions).
The State has also been paying homage to the Church by instituting religious oaths when being sworn into office and similarly religious oaths in the courts (Greece was recently forced by the European Court of Human Rights to offer secular alternatives). Religious icons are also omnipresent in courts of law, school classrooms, institutions logos and state officials’ offices (characteristically, the former right wing Prime Minister during the 2015 campaign fervently proclaimed that he would never allow the icons to be removed).
It should also be noted that, by necessity due to the legislative entanglement between Church and State, the greek department of education also deals with religious and ecclesiastical matters and has always been named “Ministry of Education and Religions” (even by the current government), much to the chagrin of Greek secularists.
The Greek National Identity
Two centuries of the tight embrace of the Church and the State and the religious origins of the State of Greece have practically fused Orthodox Christianity and the Greek National Identity in a single alloy, forged in the fires of the nationalism prevalent in the Balkan Peninsula. For the average Greek it’s practically impossible to tell where his Greek identity starts and where his religious affiliation ends. This creates interesting juxtapositions and issues that under normal circumstances would be a major source of cognitive dissonance.
To put plainly, someone who is Greek is inalienably both Greek and Orthodox. He is convinced he is as purely Greek as were the Byzantines and the Ancient Greeks; to doubt the spiritual, if not genetic, purity of this lineage is a grave insult and borders on the treasonous (the politics in the Balkans have made sure of this). He is also completely Orthodox, but since he gains the title by birthright and has not really earned it, he can spout any sort of gross heretical opinion and it still rings Orthodox to him (e.g. he can believe in reincarnation, doubt the veracity of Scripture and liberally hate his enemies and still feel Orthodox; this becomes even more evident in the diaspora, where churches also double as community cohesion centres). Even observing non-religious customs surrounding religious events are often considered per se religious acts.
This schizophrenic attitude towards religion perhaps explains the fact that Greeks have a number of common curse phrases that would be considered grossly blasphemous in the US (“f*** your Jesus/Virgin Mary/God”); a phenomenon that the clergy have been attempting to combat for at least 50 years with little success.
It should also be noted that, while Greeks value the Church as an institution, anticlericalism is quite common, if not fashionable; the corrupt clerics are rightly blasted for their actions, while the decent clerics are used as an excuse to absolve the Church as a whole (though this strategy is hardly exclusive to Greece).
If you suffer from an acute case of tl;dr-itis, take these home with you:
- Greece is nothing like the USA and the rest of the european secular republics.
- Greece was founded as a distinctly christian country (albeit not a theocracy).
- The current Constitution still carries elements from the 19th century and contains several religious elements; hence Greece is not a constitutionally secular state.
- The modern Greek National Identity is a merger of the medieval Greek-speaking populations, Orthodox Christianity and the politicized belief that Modern Greeks are direct descendants of Ancient Greeks.
- The Church entered the modern era with a large amount of money and rural property, which, after several incidents, was translated into real estate in the major Greek cities and cash.
- The Church mainly supports right wing parties, though most politicians try to appear pious to avoid religious criticism.
- The clergy’s salaries are currently being paid by the State.
- Greeks are generally suspicious of any secularization attempt, fuelled by fears of national identity loss. The Church makes sure this fear remains stoked.
I hope the article has made the situation in Greece a lot clearer. Thanks for bearing with me for this long and, as always, all corrections, suggestions and comments are welcome. In an article this size, errors are bound to crop up and I’ve upon posting this, I’ve asked the Greek Atheist Community for feedback, so there should soon be several additions and corrections.