21 Aug 2015

Greece's debts: no separation of church and state

By good fortune I find myself on a Greek island for five days amid Berlin’s final sign-off on the bailout deal, and the resignation and calling of elections for 20 September by Greek Prime Minister Tsipras.


This island, which I won’t name for fear of offending the residents, is home to some 2,000 souls and hosts perhaps another 2,000 during the summer months.

I’ve just trekked some 10km across the island looking at some of the church lands that dominate this island and so many other parts of Greece. A local farmer showed me the kilometre-long chain link fence that the church has just installed to demark its barren rocky lands from his.

He estimated that it has cost some £10,000 to install. Whilst there is no evidence of poverty on this island, my reporting trips have displayed both hunger and poverty in and around Athens that £10,000 might have gone a long way wait to alleviating.

So it is that I find myself exploring the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in the torrid affairs of this sun-kissed yet severely indebted country. I am amazed to find that a previous regime here decided to enrol every single priest as a civil servant and pay them as such – together with their pensions. The sums involved run into many hundreds of millions.

These 2,000 souls and their rarely church going visitors are serviced by no fewer that 20 priests. That’s effectively one for every hundred people, but church attendance here is reportedly down to 10 per cent of the Greek population.

I’m tempted to ask where else in the European Union are priests on government payrolls, and where else is the money we pay to the IMF paid out in debt relief to employ church operatives on bloated government payrolls?

I’m left asking why on earth the next government cannot simply cease these payments and seize some of the vast tract of land that the church seems to own. What I know of Christian teaching seems to talk about “rendering to Caesar” that which belongs to the state. I can’t find any reference to Jesus Christ teaching that “Caesar” should be paying to employ his disciples!

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