Tsipras' “Religious Neutrality” Idea Hits Greek Bishops Roadblock

The National Herald

The Holy Synod of the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece, Nov. 16, 2018. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Christos Bonis)

Unhappy they weren’t informed or consulted, the Bishops of the Holy Synod in Greece are standing in the way of atheist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’ plan for separation of Church and State, a scheme that would see 9,000 clerics taken off state payrolls but continue to paid by the Church – with money from the government.

In a move political rivals dismissed as grandstanding and a bid to buy votes, Tsipras said the move would allow him to hire 10,000 civil servants as he’s been scurrying to find ways to win back favor after plummeting in polls for reneging repeatedly on anti-austerity promises.

The Premier, who said he wanted “religious neutrality” even before he took office in 2015, has waited more than 3 ½ years before trying to take on the Church, a formidable foe in Greece with centuries of ties to the government.

After ousting an Education Minister who wanted to make religion classes in Greek schools secular in nature and for separating the rule of the Church and State, Tsipras has taken on the crusade again himself, and won the support of the head of the Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, who acted unilaterally without telling the Bishops or the priests who wouldn’t be paid by the state anymore.

In a feature report, the New York Times outlined the obstacles although Tsipras glibly rejected any notion that the Church – the Archbishop, the Bishops or the priests – have any say in the matter and that the decision was his alone.

“The payroll status of clerics is, in any case, the responsibility and decision of the state,” his office said in a statement, adding that the government would prepare a draft law based on the joint declaration by Mr. Tsipras and the Archbishop, and share it with a Synod committee before sending it to Parliament.

The Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, whose approval would be required for the proposal to advance, held an emergency session and rejected the idea of having the Church pay the priests even though the salaries would be guaranteed with a 200 million euro ($228.21 million) fund.


Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Christos Bonis)

Treading lightly despite their displeasure, the Synod’s 82 Bishops – some 30 are estimated to be staunchly opposed – said the plan would be voted on after more dialogue with Tsipras, who said he doesn’t want any and the it’s essentially a done deal.

Tsipras and the Archbishop also agreed that the Church would not seek claims against its properties taken over by the State but that both would use them jointly, without explaining how that would work in cases where both sides want use of them at the same time.

The plan is part of a Constitutional review Tsipras is pushing, saying he wants to make Greek politics “more democratic and progressive,” scoffed at by critics who said his real intent is to find some way to stay in power with elections required to be held by October, 2019 and the party he unseated, the New Democracy Conservatives, holding big leads in surveys.

If they can’t stop him, the Bishops can make the decision more volatile for Tsipras and rile up the clerics and voters too in a country where a Pew Research Center survey found that 76 percent believe their nationality is defined by Christianity, the paper said.

But there’s a pragmatic side too, with poll by ProRata for the newspaper Efimerida Ton Syntakton reporting that 59 percent of Greeks support the idea of having the Church pay the priests, even if the money comes from the government through a side door.

Members of the Greek clerics’ association met with leaders of political opposition parties to air their grievances and stated that, it “cannot be silent faced with the most violent attempt to violate labor rights in the country’s modern history.”

Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, has said the deal would be tantamount to “national suicide,” and predicted that it would not secure the approval of the Holy Synod, the paper added.

Bishop Chrysostomos of Messinia — who reacted to the measure last week by declaring that “clerics become wild beasts when you upset them” — walked out of the Synod meeting in protest, the Bishop’s session resembling a cantankerous Cabinet session of Tsipras’ coalition government which has ministers feuding furiously at times.

After the meeting, the synod released a statement saying members had decided unanimously to “continue the dialogue with the state on issues of common interest” and to set up a committee of clerics and legal experts to examine the proposal. The statement added that the synod “insists on the existing salary status of clerics and secular employees of the Church of Greece.”

Tsipras and the Archbishop didn’t consult or inform Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose office as the seat of the Church throughout the world is in Constantinople.

The Greek Minister for Education and Religious Affairs, Konstantinos Gavroglou, traveled to Constantinople to try to soothe over tensions but came out of what was said to be a testy meeting with the Patriarch with a tight-lipped statement he would pass on concerns without identifying what those were.

The Parliament has begun debate on the plan, signaling that Tsipras likely will go ahead no matter what the Bishops say even though he has been largely deferential to the Church since taking office in January, 2015.

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Tsipras’ plan was a political stunt and “activism,” aimed at trying to win votes by hiring 10,000 civil servants as Tsipras didn’t explain from where the money would come if the state is still paying the clerics through another means.