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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 — 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.

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Mount Athos's Simonopetra monastery — 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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