No Debate in Greece, by Theodore G. Karakostas

FILE - In this Friday, March 24, 2017 file photo, people walk backdropped by the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, file)

By Theodore G. Karakostas

The Orthodox Church can be considered one of the founders of Greek independence. On March 25, 1821 the feast of Annunciation, Archbishop Germanos raised the standard of revolt and the war for freedom began.

There had been precedents in Church history for such an action such as when Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople carried the Icon of the Theotokos with the procession of faithful in 626 AD when the City was threatened by the Avars, while the Emperor was away. It is interesting that the Theotokos (Mother of God) played a significant role in both the defense of Constantinople and the Greek War of Independence.

There is an unsettling and disturbing hostility aimed at the Church of Greece by the present government in Athens. Prayer has reportedly been removed from Greek schools and now the Government wishes to impose new social policies that threaten the influence of the Greek Church and the role of the Greek family (i.e., same-sex marriage).

Furthermore, Metropolitan Chrysostom of Patras recently complained to the Ministry of Health after the name of Saint Andrew (patron saint of the City) was removed from the hospital, in the campaign to secularize Greece.

An important distinction must be made between secularization and separation of church and state. Indeed, even in Byzantium, in which the concept of “symphony” (synergy) prevailed, there was in fact separate administration between the Empire and the Church. Secularism is not about separate administration, it is about bringing about the expulsion of Christianity from public life and in a very undemocratic manner.

The Byzantine era in Greece was one of the high points of Greek history and civilization. While Byzantium has been maligned by many, it has also been praised by many historians and scholars. During the seventh century, it was Constantinople that saved Europe from the first Caliphate. It was the scholars of Byzantium who preserved the manuscripts of Classical Greece in their libraries.

The hostility of various Greek political parties in recent decades toward the Church can be seen as an effort to erase the glorious Byzantine past from Greece’s national memory. Following the conquest of Constantinople it was the Greek Church beginning with the Ecumenical Patriarch George “Gennadios” Scholarius that saved the faith and national memory of the Greek people. Certainly, there are many criticisms of many hierarchs under the Turkocratia that can be made but the fact remains that Orthodoxy and Hellenism sustained one another a point made by the late Steven Runciman in his book, “The Great Church in Captivity.”

A more recent book, The Church of Greece under Axis Occupation, by Panteleymon Anastasakis claims that the Church played a similar role as it took over for the state following the occupation of Greece. The bishops became the representatives of the people in the absence of a government. Greece’s former Education Minister Nikos Filis questioned the Church’s role during the German occupation. The Church of Greece’s activities against the Nazis and their support for both Christian and Jewish Greeks is widely celebrated and praised by many, including the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The Yad Vashem includes Archbishop Damaskinos and Metropolitans Chrysostom of Zakynthos, Gennadios of Thessaloniki, andIoacheim of Volos as “righteous among the nations.”

In addition, Metropolitan Chrysostom of Smyrna was martyred for the faith of Christ and the Greek nation when he was slaughtered by the Turkish nationalists in 1922. Most recently, the Church has produced Archbishop Christodoulos, who brilliantly defended the rights of the Church against the anti-Church Simitis government and expressed the Church’s traditional patriotism.

If Greek politicians wish to secularize Greece, then they should at least be democratic about it and open the issue to a national debate.

The Church should be permitted to make a case for itself before the Greek people and to remind the people of the glorious past that was centered in Constantinople, and of the incontestable fact that the Church preserved the language and national consciousness under the Ottomans. The manner in which the Greek government has chosen to proceed with its policies is truly despicable and very undemocratic.

At a time when Greece faces various crises, including the economic crisis and the inflow of refugees (which the Church has made maximum efforts to alleviate), it needs the moral and spiritual leadership of the Bishops, Priests, and Monastics. Greeks should take inspiration from the recent glorification of Saints Paisios and Porphyrios. Saints continue to come from Christian Greece.

Theodore G. Karakostas is the author of the books In the Shadow of Hagia Sophia, and With This Sign Conquer.