Greeks Closer to Historic Separation of Church and State


Photo Credits: Wikimedia

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

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.

Religion in Greece is dominated by the Greek Orthodox Church, which is within the larger communion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It represented 90% of the total population in 2015 and is constitutionally recognized as the "prevailing religion" of Greece. In a Eurostat – Eurobarometer 2010 poll, 79% of Greek citizens responded that they "believe there is a God." According to other sources, 15.8% of Greeks describe themselves as "very religious," which is the highest among all European countries.

In 2000, a million demonstrators took to the streets to protest the state’s decision to stop listing citizens’ religion on their state-issued IDs. Despite the protests, the decision still stands.

Three months ago, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called for a change to the nation’s constitution to more clearly define the relationship between the Church and state and define the religious neutrality of the state.

The ruling radical left SYRIZA (Synaspismós Rizospastikís Aristerás) party introduced a draft amendment on October 2, 2018 calling for the “modernization” of article 3 of the constitution to reinforce the religious neutrality of the state while maintaining “for historical and practical reasons, the recognition of the Orthodox Church as the dominant religion.” “The declaration of religious neutrality in the Greek constitution should emphasize that the Greek state is the guarantor of religious freedom for the Greek people and Greek citizens. Nothing more, nothing less,” the Prime Minster said back then.

Conservatives have criticized Tsipras for his lack of faith. 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.”

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, the foremost leader in the Eastern Christian church, also reacted negatively to the proposed church-state split in Greece.

Bartholomew said the deal will result in the abolition of religious holidays, allowing other doctrines to be taught in religion class in Greek schools and the removal of religious symbols from public buildings, including schools and courts. But those provisions are not in the deal, say its advocates.

As Sotiris Mitralexis — a philosophy instructor at the University of Athens who is an expert in church-state relations in Greece — says “for any objective observer the agreement is mutually beneficial” because the deal protects the church from more draconian cuts later in the event of a new crisis.

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