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Greece

The role of religion within the Greek social space is hegemonic. The Orthodox Church is by far the pre-dominant religious organization. The Old-Calendarists (i.e. the Orthodox using the Julian calendar) and the Islamic community, the members of which reside both in Western Thrace and the urban centres, are the most numerous religious minorities. Recently, other cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have expanded their activities. Despite the recent secularization trends, the political influence of the Church remains significant.

The pre-dominant status of the Orthodox Church is path-dependent, linked to the lack of a ‘pluralized’ religious landscape, as well as to the social norms that have persisted in the Orthodox commonwealth at large. From a historical perspective, the Reformation and the Enlightenment cleavages, matrixes of the secularization process, did not exert much influence on the Orthodox East, allowing the religious bureaucracy to reproduce its symbolic and social capital. The maintenance of the traditional hierarchical norms subsequently produced important counter effects on the development of Greek political culture. From an ideological perspective, the instrumental role attributed to the Church for the construction and crystallization of Greek ‘imagined’ national identity has been pivotal. Orthodoxy was represented as the cohesive element of the collective subject, the symbolic reference point of the national group in time and space. Its social power, therefore, became part of the ‘common sense’; thus, unquestionable.

Various polls and surveys have been conducted with regard to the level of religiosity. Despite varying results, all establish Greece as one of the most religious countries in Europe. It should also be mentioned that the most recent surveys indicate the ongoing development of a more secular understanding of the social and political space. The data used here is derived from the European Values Study (EVS 1981-2008) Longitudinal Data File, so it can be related and compared to the respective data on other countries.

The statistical evidence from the four-item index of variables (a) religious belonging and self-identification; b) religious practice; c) religious belief; and d) religious attitude), is characteristic: a) 84.3 % is self-identified as a religious person; b) 18 % attends church service at least once a week, while the number of ‘once a month’ churchgoers is high too (21.2 %); 40.8 % prays to God every day, 13.1 % more than once a week and 7.7 % once a week (the more or less frequent prayers comprise about 60 % of the total); c) 92.8 % state their belief in God; about 70 % considers God to be important or very important for their life; approximately 50 % believe in basic religious doctrines, such as belief in the existence of heaven, hell or life after death; d) 38.5 % believe that non-faithful politicians should not take up public office. The number of those who take a neutral stance on this question is high as well (20.9 %); 22 % believe that it is better that more people with strong religious beliefs be in public office. The number of those who take a neutral stance on this question is also elevated (37.5 %).

The broad social legitimization of the Orthodox Church has probably rendered it the most influential ‘interest group’ within Greek politics. In short, religious officials lobby in order to reproduce the Church monopoly and social capital, and try to influence the decision-making process in order to carry through their policies. In exchange for preferential treatment, the Church constitutes, historically, a pillar for the shaping of social consensus.

Greece is a ‘fully establishment’ religious market. In particular, since the 19th century it has been regulated according to the ‘State-law rule’ system. Structured on the principle of the State’s primacy, this legal framework does not define a mutual relationship between Church and State as equal partners, but one between the dominant and the dominated. On the one hand, the Constitution defines Parliament as the competent authority to legislate on Church affairs (art. 72). On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox Church is recognized as representing the ‘prevailing’ religion (art. 3). Two views have been suggested with regard to the interpretation of the term ‘prevailing’. On the one hand, it has been argued that it means ‘the overwhelming majority of the Greek people’. In effect, it does not establish the Church as agent of the official cult of Greece. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the application of art. 72, in conjunction with the ‘institutionalised’ close links between the two powers, actually establish the Church as a State agency, i.e. a State Church.

The various Orthodox Church institutions, the Jewish and the Muslim communities are recognized as having legal personality under public law. The Constitution defines the development of ‘religious consciousness’ (art. 16) as the State’s mission. This clause practically rules the instruction of religious courses along confessional lines in primary and secondary education. Four University departments of Theological studies as well as a number of Church institutions for the training of religious personnel (i.e. Ecclesiastical Academies) are funded by the State. 

Article 13 of the Constitution guarantees the religious liberty and non-discrimination value frame. The State protects the right to freedom of conscience (in its negative form as well), and the right to freedom of worship. The Roman Catholic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian, the Armenian, the Anglican and the other Churches, which do not enjoy legal personality under public law, have recently been recognized as having a ‘religious personality’ under private law (L. 4301/2014). However, the close ties between Church and State coupled with the Orthodox ‘holistic vision’ of society have been a central factor for the creation of the restrictive ‘ethos’ for minority liberties that has persisted in the country.

Despite the constitutional acknowledgement of religious equality, the other faith organizations in practice still face certain limitations regarding their activities. For instance, despite the large Muslim immigrant community of Athens, the obstacles raised against the construction of a Mosque have been numerous. Since the 1990’s, the State has gradually softened the restrictive framework over minority religious practices and institutions as a result of European Court of Human Rights rulings against Greece for violating art. 9 (religious freedom) of the Convention.

The Greek territory is divided in 5 distinct ecclesiastical jurisdictions: a) the Autocephalous Church of Greece; b) the so-called Church of the New Lands (a and b Churches constitute the Church of Greece); c) the Church of the Dodecanese islands; d) the Church of Crete; and e) the monastic community of Mount Athos [Agion Oros/the Holy Mountain]. All Orthodox organizations were in the past the recipient of State subsidies, either directly or indirectly through various economic and fiscal privileges. However, this preferential treatment has been gradually changing by reducing the relevant tax exemptions. On the other hand, the Mount Athos Monasteries and their various dependencies, due to their special constitutional status that is guaranteed by the EU, still enjoy a number of important fiscal advantages, such as the exemption from paying v.a.t.

A number of legal questions have been raised regarding the official practices applied with regard to the operation of the various religious organizations within Greece. Particularly, it has been argued that State policy should change, mainly with regards to the preferential treatment enjoyed by the Orthodox Church, the system of religious education and the implementation of Sharia Law as regards personal status and family relations of the Muslim minority in Western Thrace. Overall, it seems that, despite the ‘top to bottom’ development of a secularizing trend, the demand for State-Church separation has not yet become dominant within Greek society.

Since 2010 Greece has had to cope with an unprecedented financial and humanitarian crisis. The crisis signified the restructuring of the political space, as reflected in the alignment of the constituency to the Leftist Syriza party, and the breakthrough of the neo-Nazi People’s Association-Golden Dawn (GD) party. Within this context, the Church faced four major social and political challenges: the promotion of a charity agenda; defining its discourse in respect to Troika policies; defining its strategy in relation to the growth of Syriza, i.e. the political representative of the most secular segments of Greek society; and defining its political stance towards the growth of the radical right.

During the financial crisis the Orthodox Church of Greece has organized a network of social support (everyday soup kitchens, accommodation for homeless people, medical help, etc.) which has been of great help for the population both in urban centres (the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki) and in rural areas. It should be noted that compared to its former relatively low activity in this field, the Church has extensively developed its social work.

With regards to its political stance vis-à-vis the Troika, the Church’s policy has been ambivalent. On the one hand, in its Declaration to the People (Nov. 2010), Greece was portrayed as being under occupation by its creditors. Moreover, the ruling parties were represented as merely the tool of foreign imperialism against Greece’s own interests. On the other hand, the encyclical of the Holy Synod no. 2894 on the ‘Economic Crisis’ (15/3/2010) followed an accommodating style, making no reference to Troika control of the administration, but the responsibility for the crisis lies with the corrupt political establishment as well as the immoral way of life of the Greek people. This of course did not signify an anti-systemic political theology; rather, the religious discourse followed the orientalist normative vocabulary, according to which the crisis should be viewed as an opportunity for westernizing the Greek political and social order. In line with this ideological frame, the Church of Greece took a clear pro-European stance in favour of the YES vote in the July 2015 referendum.

Syriza has been transformed from a protest party of the Left to a ruling political alliance, following a centripetal political strategy in order to gain power. Hence, in the course of time it has adopted a more moderate position in relation to the religious agenda. Since 2012, Syriza MP’s voted all legal measures taken in favour of the Church, and the party leadership created links with religious officials. Within this context, the Church has no serious ground for altering its ‘controlled compromise’ political strategy, i.e. as long as its privileges are safe, it abstains from the political arena.

The past political activation of the Church has played a key role in the growth of the radical right in Greece, constituting the breeding ground for the social legitimization and de-stigmatization of ideas such as nativism or authoritarianism, ideas which at the same time constitute primary elements of GD ideology. Furthermore, the current stance of religious officials towards the party is ambivalent. Instead of averting the religious electorate from voting for GD, they have preferred not to participate actively in the ‘cordon sanitaire’ against neo-Nazism, as is the case in most EU countries. In short, the Church of Greece has not declared a war, but merely and implicitly stated its opposition to the party’s practices.

In conclusion, the election of archbishop Hieronymus (2008) and the political effects of the financial crisis seem to have opened the door for reforms in the field of State-Church relations both in terms of implementing the religious freedom value frame as well as public policy decision making. This trend, however, does not signify for the Orthodox Church the loss of its hegemonic position within Greek society, but mainly signals the gradual transition to a more rational operation of the polity.

Konstantinos Papastathis (University of Luxembourg).

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