A historic agreement between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens could take the country one step closer to a religion-free state.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently announced a tentative breakthrough in talks to loosen ties between Greece and the powerful Orthodox Church, a decades-old debate which is affecting valuable church lands and clerical salaries.
If signed, the deal will allow the Greek state and the Church to manage lands and properties that were otherwise exclusively controlled by the clergy.
“We do not have an agreement but an intention to reach an agreement,” Archbishop Ieronymos said after a meeting of the Holy Synod, the Church's ruling body, Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported.
Tsipras took to Twitter to highlight the significance of the deal saying it is “beneficial for both sides.”
Η συμφωνία Πολιτείας-Εκκλησίας της Ελλάδας είναι το αποτέλεσμα ενός κοπιαστικού διαλόγου που έχει ξεκινήσει εδώ και 3 χρόνια, με όφελος και για τις δύο πλευρές. Το «θαύμα της βούλησης» έγινε!— Alexis Tsipras (@atsipras) November 8, 2018
Role of the church in daily life
The Greek Orthodox Church has played a leading role in the country's social and political matters for many centuries and Christianity is considered Greece’s official religion under the constitution.
For many Greeks, their national identity is defined by their religion.
Children learn about religion at school and until Tsipras, ministers and lawmakers took oath on the bible.
The Church and the government had previously clashed with the former opposing the idea of adding other religions to the textbooks. But after Tsipras came to power many changes were made.
In 2000, backed by massive rallies, the Church tried but failed to dissuade the then socialist government from removing religion on Greeks' identity cards.
In Greek schools the days starts with a morning prayer. Religion is taught for a total of 12 years, with the church having a major say in teaching material.
The 2018-2019 school year went through some changes. The religion course will be taught without textbooks while the State and the Church are trying to find a common ground on the course format and how it will be taught. In the meantime, students are given a “special folder” which includes a multi-religion curricula, Kathimerini reported.
After schools started with the annual sanctification, religion remains a compulsory course. For those who wish to not take it, a written letter will be signed by the student’s parents stating that their child is not a Christian Orthodox, Greek newspaper efsyn reports.
Most Greek parents are accustomed to baptising a newborn, declaring its religion and acquiring a name. But baptism is not mandatory or required by law. A name can be acquired by a legal document at the registry office of each family. Many parents don't baptise their children nowadays.
The church does not accept same sex marriage but since 2015 same sex couples can marry under the so-called “cohabitation agreement”. Since 2018 same sex couples can adopt children while since February 2018 an individual can be gender neutral.
The agreement reached between Tsipras and the archbishop will end the long-running dispute over the status of priests and pastors, whose salaries come from the state coffers.
Under the deal, the government will grant an annual state subsidy to the church to cover the monthly salaries of priests, who no longer will take the benefits the country's civil servants are entitled to.
The Church will agree for Greece to become "religion neutral," which will also put an end to the long simmering property dispute between the two.
This, in theory, will free up some 10,000 jobs on the state payroll.
The Greek church is the country’s richest institution with properties worth an estimate of €700 billion, an issue that has caused friction between the government and the Church, as the institution and its monasteries were not taxed over their properties or affected by austerity measures imposed on the rest of the Greek people during the ongoing economic crisis.
It is unclear how much property the Church owns as its structure is decentralised and Greece has no central land registry.
Tsipras said that under the agreement, Church and State will form a joint fund to manage and develop contested properties.
If the deal is implemented, the government will acquire an equal share in valuable church lands whose ownership has been a matter of dispute and claimed by both since the 1950s.
Greece's creditors have long urged the government to sell assets and reduce the number of public sector employees.
Impact on constitution
The preliminary agreement coincides with parliamentary discussions on a revision of Greece's constitution’s Article 3, which states that Orthodoxy is the country's "dominant" religion.
Tsipras said he had reassured the Archbishop that any constitutional changes would protect the autonomy of the Church but it is still unclear what this autonomy includes.
The prime minister is now considering of revising Article 16 which refers to education.
The opposition led by President of New Democracy party Kyriakos Mitsotakis has criticised any attempt to dilute the law which changes the Christian identity of the state, saying that there is no need for “legislative interventions.”
The Association of Greek Clergy issued an aggressive statement earlier opposing the split.
Father Georgios Vamvakidis, a representative of the association, speaking on Greece’s Thema 104.6 radio station, said most of the country’s bishops will oppose the government's move to change the religious character of the Greek state.
“The reaction is going to be massive and unprecedented in Greece’s history,” he said.
Government spokesperson, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos urged “all political forces to support this historic initiative which addresses one of the most complex legal and real issues, perhaps the most complex, in the history of the Greek state.”
The deal has to be approved by the cabinet, comprised of Minister Tsipras and his council of ministers. After it earns the consent of the Holy Synod and the legal document is drafted and signed by both Tsipras and Ieronymos, it has to be approved by the parliament.