Why Syriza Leftists Play Nice With Greek Orthodox Church

The Church is hugely wealthy and exempt from almost all taxes. But its charitable works are crucial in Greece, ravaged by financial crisis and an inept public sector.

Archibishop of Greece Ieronymos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens in February
Archibishop of Greece Ieronymos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens in February
Pavlos Kapantais

ATHENS â€" Under the watchful eye of the imposing Father Pavlos, Maria, Katerina and Roula, all three volunteers in their fifties, serve meals to the poor of all ages. Pavlos, 68, who leads St. Nicholas Church on the outskirst of Athens, proudly notes that the parish has been distributing food for 40 years. But with Greece's devastating financial crisis, the number of distributed meals in this working-class district of Kallithea has increased from 140 to more than 270 per day over the past five years.

From time to time, while Pavlos is speaking, people timidly approach him to ask for a bit of money to pay for water or electricity bills. Others who have lost their social security, beg so they can buy medicine.

The priest of the very wealthy and powerful Greek Orthodox Church is always a bit late, but no one ever leaves empty-handed. Despite the devastating crisis that started in 2010, "None of our parishioners have had their electricity cut off in the past four years," he says. Such a record is rare in a country where the GDP has fallen by one-fourth in five years and where more than 500,000 households have seen their power cut off for lack of payment at one time or another.

Food donations, free care, voluntary work

The Church’s volunteers serve all those who come for food. On the menu today: roast chicken and manestra, a kind of rice-like pasta, which is very popular in Greece. As usual, about 20 dishes are consumed on site and more than 250 are taken away in plastic containers. According to the most modest estimations, around 100,000 meals are served every day by the country's churches.

A few kilometers from Pavlos' parish, at the Agios Andreas Church in the working-class neighborhood of Ano Patissia, Father Thomas Choic even founded a youth center with foosball tables, computers, Xboxes, a multitude of sport activities (soccer, volleyball, basketball), traditional dance lessons, and even a small medical office that dispenses free care thanks to the help of volunteer doctors. To achieve this, Choic makes use of his charisma. And his network.

Nicknamed the "priest to the stars," he seeks the support of the biggest names in Greece's entertainment industry. Without ever accepting money, he collects food donations (flour, pasta, rice) and everything the population could need. And, from one end of the peninsula to another, Greek Orthodox priests also fund numerous hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes and daycare centers.

A fortune worth 2 billion euros

While Greece is crushed by the weight of debt (more than 320 billion euros and 170% of the GDP) and is looking solutions everywhere, politicians could be tempted to make the Orthodox Church pay more. It is the country's second-largest landowner after the state. Over the centuries, it has accumulated great wealth, valued at around 2 billion euros.

The institution, of course, is partially taxed. Its real estate that is rented to private individuals or companies, as well as any commercial activity, are subject to taxes. But significant exemtpions apply to unused assets (empty buildings, forests etc.), buildings used as places of worship (churches and monasteries), and anything used for charitable purposes.

Mount Athos, the ancient and sacred Orthodox sanctuary comprised of 20 monasteries, benefits from an absolute exemption. Thanks to its partial autonomy guaranteed by the 1975 Constitution, any commercial activity organized within the monastic complex is free of taxes. Removing this exemption would be almost impossible, as any constitutional reform requires two successive votes with a three-fifth parliamentary majority.

Mount Athos's Simonopetra monastery â€" Photo: Michalis Famelis/GFDL

When Christ meets Marx

To justify these tax privileges, the religious institution insists that it provides indispensable services in areas where the state is deficient, especially during these times of crisis. With January's rise to power of the radical left Syriza coaltion, a lot could have changed. Party leader Alexis Tsipras is the only prime minister in the country's history not to have taken an oath on the Bible. Apart from this very symbolic gesture, however, nothing has changed for the Orthodox patriarchy. Though Syriza promised it would execute a separation between church and state while it was in the opposition, it has yet to make a move to do so.

"What separates the Church and Syriza is far less important than what unites them: solidarity towards the most impoverished and the idea of a human community fueled by each person's altruism are at the center of both the values of the left and Christianity," says Andreas Karizis, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and is a member of Syriza's central committee. "In these times where neoliberalism is attacking European societies, these two powers are naturally on the same side: that of resistance and human values."

But this community of spirits is not the main reason why the radical left has yet to confront the Church. At a time where his aggressive negotiation tactics are running into the European Union's intransigence, Tsipras is trying to avoid opening a new divide within the country. It's actually not the first time a declared clash between the Church and reigning political power has failed to manifest.

Antonios Avramiotis, who manages the Orthodox Church's finances, proudly recalls, "When, in 1981, the Pasok the Greek socialist party came to power, it also wanted to tax all our land, whether it was used for charity work or not."

But, the priest continues, the minister in charge of the case soon abandoned the project. "He became aware that if the Church, pressured by taxes, ceased its charity, it would cost a lot more to the State, even if it were just to guarantee half its services."

Serious political weight

Of course, the political weight of the Church also still protects it from any reform that could hurt it financially. "Its role is very different from what we can imagine from afar," says Greek-Swiss historian Nicolas Bloudanis. "The religious holidays are very actively celebrated by the whole population, inside Greece and everywhere the Greek diaspora is in the world. They unite the Hellenic community, rather than simply the religious community."

Throughout the 20th century, the Church repeatedly fell in with the conservative right wing. Such was the case during the 1946-1950 civil war, and again when the military junta of 1967-1974 was in power. During these two periods of time, many priests supported the left, against their hierarchy, but the Church is forever rooted on the right of the political spectrum in its general thinking. This was verified with the July 5 referendum on the proposals of Greece's European creditors. (The country has since moved forward with required reform.) Usually very discreet, Archbishop Leronymosgave a barely disguised voting order in support.

Was this overwhelming rejection, led by Syriza, a sign that the Church had lost influence in Greek society? Maybe it is simply paying the price for repeated incoherent stances? In 2010, at the very start of the crisis, the Holy Synod, the supreme authority, published a widely distributed statement denouncing the so-called troika (IMF, European Commission and the European Central Bank) as a "foreign occupation force." Justifying support for the troika's proposals was complicated, to say the least, and followers had trouble understanding this.

Avoiding a fratricidal war

What will the relationship be from now on between the Church, Syriza and Tsipras' government? Until now, the Greek prime minister has been very respectful towards the institution. He accepted the helping hand of the archbishop, who, as recently as April, offered to make available to the state real estate that wasn't being used, and to share the revenue it could generate.

Will the supportive voting instructions given by the patriarchy for the July 5 vote indicate the start of a new era, where the left and the Church begin to openly clash? Fortunately, in the country's difficult situation, where government stability can be weakened from one day to another, both sides seem to want to avoid a fratricidal war.

The morning prayer in Greece marks the start of the day for every pupil in the country, priests are civil servants, and even the Constitutions are written "in the name of the Saint, Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity." It goes to show that, even for a leftist government, making the Church pay basic taxes is no easy task.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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