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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11 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    When one considers the initial illegality of ‘IMF termed’ loans. The under reported Greek government concessions to meet those loans. The Troika’s refusal for any other, than the complete destruction of Greek economic independence. The ‘actual’ money trail of the heavily publicised loans whose beneficiaries, not the Greek people, were tactfully kept out of print, one wonders the purpose of such a seemingly innocent article? Reminds one of Lincolns words ,
    “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time”

  2. Mick says:

    Tax the churches! All of them. Everywhere.

  3. Bruce Hymers says:

    Even worse; the Greece church owns some of the most lucrative commercial real estate in the country and pays no tax on this revenue. The priests take untaxed payments for blessing houses cars and businesses as well as eating in restaurants without charge. To call many of these priests a Christian is an oxymoron to say the least.

  4. Richard Lacey says:

    I have more a question than a comment.
    This small island as you said could not possibly reflect the potential good work the greek church does do in and around Athens could it?

    It seams perhaps a statement to install a chain around there land………

  5. mervyn johnson says:

    This is just another example that exposes the Greeks’ government wretched handling of its finances. And yet they have managed to manipulate the rest of Europe into handing over another bailout, the third in five years.
    Is it any surprise that the German public sentiment (who are paying) is so hostile?
    This latest bailout will not be the last. The Eurozone is not the first single currency in Europe, but as with previous attempts this is doomed to another very expensive failure.

  6. Mike Harland says:


    I am once again left wondering why somebody my own age is (as you were on Scottish independence) again off target in their understanding of ClubMed.

    The structures of the southern dictatorships of Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal) never disappeared they were merely ‘updated’ to fit into our European democratic point of view and the fascists and oligarch elite behind them merely dropped their uniforms or extremist views and merged into the crowd, exactly like modern insurgents or ultranationalists do nowadays when the going gets too tough and they have to lie low.

    As a student in the early 70s in Spain and Portugal, the Catholic church fell in behind the regimes and became part of their structure – even after ‘democracy’ arrived, senior clergy in Portugal would declare it a sin to vote for the wrong party! There were only a few dissidents within the church: I was married in Madrid in the district of Franco’s old political prison by a so-called ‘cura comunista’, i.e. a more socialist-minded curate who was happy to have a drink with me on the night before the wedding and make jokes about Henry VIII and his many wives!

    So the fact that the church in Greece is state-supported even today is not surprising given the fact that the old oligarchs who still no real taxes were still in overall political power until Syriza took office, their civil servants then obstructed Tsipras and Varoufakis in trying to change things (including the Central Bank), tax inspectors themselves never paid taxes, and many other parts of the old dictator/oligarch structure are supported in just the same way – Syriza was the only hope Greece had of getting rid of the corrupt infrastructure of Greek society and finally ‘free the people’ (to use now defunct socialist jargon) and you don’t dismantle those kinds of structure in one or even two generations (one might argue that German authoritarianism still hasn’t moved on much either, given the current DeutcheClub attitudes of making the poor people pay and let the oligarchs back off the hook as Schaüble has just done).

    Coming back to your focus on the church in Greece, the only difference with Iberia is that the Greek church did not have a sufficient bank account to maintain its power (which might explain why in your example it is now trying to protect the land it has left before the northern asset-strippers arrive). One might also argue that the Catholic church in Iberia is in fact equally ‘state-sponsored’ since the Vatican is a State with its own immense riches that it did not want to lose in the old days.

    Enjoy the rest of your holiday, but do either just close your eyes or look far more closely. I myself prefer not to go to Greece or Brazil nowadays, because I know the horror that lurks down every side street hidden behind the jolly cafés, sunny beaches, happy middle-class 4×4 set, and the ignorati’s tourist dreams – for me, it was enough to practise the bit of Greek I had to talk to people on Crete a decade ago and hear how they still hated the Germans for what they did there in WWII and felt humiliated to have to smile at them as they had to accept their tourist euros to still get by – God knows how they feel now!

  7. pappas says:

    mr snow was fascinated by what a previously thought of as a developed nation now in economic third world style meltdown was like to vacation at; His contribution to boosting the Greek situation. Stunning intitiative!!!!! Andrew Pierce did something similar.

    The whole destitute atmosphere, the perceived desperation of unskilled people., more so than his fleeting visits for work purposes could give him; His experiences and interacting with the locals would give him a very good topic of conversation to blog and converse about, espeiially if he’s been there before in more prosperous times. Having visited many countries in Asia I’ve seen how hard people work just to scrape a pittance with no welfare assistance at all. Nothing can be comparable to this.

    Bet you air traffic controllers must still get paid well, given that tourism is the major factor keeping Greece alive. Imagine if they striked.

    I think Mr snow would imitate Tom Bradby heroics; He too would try to save and assist any individual who deliberately harmed themselves.even should there be possible dangers ot himself., or at best use his mobile to get help even though it may incur a cost to him.

    Any local will know he’s a tourist though with his size and stature, no one would dare cheekily pick his pocket or attempt to mugg him, especially since tourists have been advised to take plenty of Euros. Just think, a night in jail offers free food , water bed and shelter; given the current predicament for the majority of the population. they are probably wondering how they may pay for these essentials.

  8. Chris says:

    Ha! we spotted you on the island of Hydra on Sunday. Very poor disguise Jon!

  9. selfies says:

    Did he spend and tip generously as he could feel pure empathy for the plight of the desperate. Wonder if he’d disclose what his entire expenditure was for this trip.

    No holiday selfies Mr snow?. he looked stunningly tanned on his return.
    Wonder how abreast Mr Snow is of modern IT? Being a journalist one would assume a great deal , though you never know; A lot of what he does may still be old fashioned like watching VHS cassesstes..
    Does he prefer tablets of smart phones.; even digital cameras now are considered obsolete given you can take pictures on smart phones.

  10. scammer says:

    If mr snow was scammed out of anything up to 50 Euros I doubt he’d give it a second thought.
    I’m still raving over being charged almost 20 extra eurois for a taxi ride even though i’d done the exact same route two years previously much cheaper.

    I was just not vigilant that day in detecting unscrupulous greed.

    Re last comment Why would Mr snow need to dis himself overseas.

  11. John K says:

    The church of Greece is a very powerful mafia, the second one after the state. They even indoctrinate the youth in public school with religion teachers paid by the state, taking time form other subject such as mathematics or literature….
    Greece is like Iran, but Greeks want to be part of European Union, so one day they will need to deal with this mafia….

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