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The relationship of Church and State is a perennial issue in Orthodox circles, especially given the exceptionally close and occasionally complicated ties that were the norm during the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. The debate is taking on new urgency in Greece, whose constitution and legal tradition provides the Orthodox Church with a unique status. But is that about to change?
A new concordat?
Nov 21st 2014, 14:48 BY B.C. | THESSALONIKI
IN THE churches of this country’s second city, some of which date from the Byzantine era, there was a decent turnout of worshipers this morning for one of the most enigmatic and mystical rites of the Greek church calendar: a service commemorating the moment when the Virgin Mary, as a young girl, is said to have gone to live in the Jerusalem Temple and prepared to become a new kind of “temple” herself by carrying a divine child in her womb.
The liturgical poetry was reassuringly familiar, but there is nervousness in the chilly autumn air. Apart from the personal hardship that many church-goers are facing because of a lingering economic crisis, they face a new uncertainty in the coming months—the possible advent of a leftist government which is committed to separating church and state in what has hitherto been one of the most “theocratic” countries in Europe. If, as seems very possible, the current legislature fails to muster the necessary votes to elevate a new state president early next year, there will be early parliamentary elections, and the leftist Syriza party—led by a veteran of the communist youth movement, Alexis Tsipras—could well top the poll.
At full stretch, severing the connection between church and state would presumably mean: i) stripping the Orthodox church of its constitutionally guaranteed role as the “prevailing religion” in Greece; ii) ending the arrangement where priests and many other people who work for the church are on the state pay-roll; iii) tidying up and in some cases sequestering the church’s vast and ill-defined property portfolio; iv) putting a stop to the prayers and confessional instruction which are part of the daily diet for almost all pupils at state schools; v) ending all tax exemptions for religious institutions. Certainly there are plenty of secular leftists in Greece who would love to do all that. At a time when Greece’s old left-right fissures are widening again, there is lots of anti-clerical feeling among socialists who suspect the church leadership of colluding with the political right or even far-right. But in reality, say people close to the world of church-state relations, the old ties are loosening already and this process might not accelerate all that much under a hard-leftist government.
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