Greeks Bristle at Historic Deal to Split Orthodox Church From State

Archbishop Ieronymos, left, meets Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the laterís office in Maximou Residence to announce a deal between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek state on Nov. 6, 2018, in Athens, Greece. Photo by Andrea Bonetti/Office of the President of the Hellenic Parliament

The government of Greece and the Orthodox Church may be headed for breakup next month under a historic deal negotiated in secret between Archbishop Ieronymos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Next month, the country’s parliament is expected to vote on an agreement to make the Greek state neutral toward religion, ending the primacy of Greek Orthodoxy in the country’s constitution.

The state would become co-owner of church property, giving it the right to lease unused properties. Proceeds from those leases would be divided between the church and government.

Most importantly, the agreement would strip the country’s 8,000 clergy of their status as civil servants.

Many Orthodox Christian clergy are not happy about it.

“Orthodoxy was sold out,” Metropolitan Amvrosios of Kalavryta, one of the fiercest critics of the deal, wrote in an open letter last month. “We’re going to lose whatever is left of the ecclesiastical estate. Greek Orthodox clergy should rebel.”

Priests have held vigils, threatened to excommunicate the prime minister and promised to exhort voters to abandon his left-wing Syriza party since the agreement was announced Nov. 6.

Archibishop Ieronymos, bottom, blesses the Hellenic Parliament before the start of the session on Oct. 2, 2017, in Athens, Greece. Photo by Andrea Bonetti/Office of the President of the Hellenic Parliament

“There have been intense reactions,” said Sotiris Mitralexis, a philosophy instructor at the University of Athens who is an expert in church-state relations in Greece. “But for any objective observer the agreement is mutually beneficial.”

Many members of the church’s Holy Synod say they were angered at being left in the dark as the talks between the archbishop and Tsipras went on for three years.

Recently, seeking to quell unrest, the government agreed to continue talks with the church. The synod appointed a commission to study the legislation that would seal the deal.

If the agreement is approved, the government would set up a fund to pay current priests’ salaries — estimated at $230 million a year — while the church would pick up the tab for new priests. As the church’s 8,000 clergy retire, the church will incur the expenses of their replacements.

The deal comes as the Greek government has been reeling from a financial crisis that has forced Tsipras to raise taxes and cut spending for almost a decade, impoverishing millions.

The deal protects the church from more draconian cuts later in the event of a new crisis, Mitralexis said.

He believes many clergymen don’t understand their church’s finances.

“They believe they’re secured right now, even though under the current status any future government could stop their payroll at any time,” Mitralexis said. “There’s also a Pavlovian response from the clergy toward the government. They believe Tsipras is out to get them.”

Conservatives have criticized Tsipras for his lack of faith.

A nonbeliever, he opted for a cohabitation agreement rather than a religious wedding with his partner, Betty Baziana.

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Source: Religion News Service