THE Greek Orthodox Church and the government in Athens have reached a deal that ends a time-honoured arrangement under which the country’s 10,000 priests are paid by the state.
Under the proposals, the clergy will lose their status as civil servants, and will instead be paid from a new joint fund of about £175 million, partly based on earnings generated from properties, the ownership of which has been disputed by the two sides for decades. In return, the Church will not oppose moves to make the state “religion neutral”, and would drop its claim to the properties.
The deal between the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, a declared atheist, and the Metropolitan, Archbishop Ieronymos II, is in line with efforts by the Left-leaning government to separate Church from state.
Greek Orthodoxy plays a significant part in public life — schoolchildren start their day with a prayer, and are taught religion throughout their 12-year mandatory education. Greek courts have a religious icon hanging above the judge’s bench, and some public services still use forms asking a person’s religion.
Swearing-in ceremonies for government ministers include a blessing by senior clergy, and the preamble to the Greek constitution will continue to read “In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity” — a reference to the fact that Greece is not simply Christian, but Christian Orthodox. It is one of the country’s richest institutions; it owns hotels and other commercial enterprises, a situation that became a contentious issue during the long-running financial crisis in Greece.
The deal — which still has to be approved by church leaders as well as ministers and MPs — has been criticised, however, by some priests and politicians. A former education minister complained that priests’ pay was being guaranteed, while the numbers of hospital doctors was reduced during the bailout years. And the body representing Greek clerics said that priests felt betrayed because they had not been consulted. Also, losing the status of civil servants could deny them existing rights.
The move fulfils a longstanding election-campaign pledge by Mr Tsipras to modernise the Greek state, which he hopes will lure back support from thousands of disgruntled voters in elections next year.
A government spokesman, Dimitris Tzannakopoulos, said that the accord sought to ensure religious neutrality for a state that had been accused of prejudicing citizens who were not Greek Orthodox. “With this agreement, 10,000 civil-servant posts will be freed up. Although clerics are not exactly civil servants, in name they are, and are counted as civil servants,” he said.