For Greece's embattled Catholics, new radical government is sign of hope

Two weeks after a far-left party swept to victory in Greek elections, sending shockwaves across austerity-bound Europe, Catholic church leaders in the crisis-hit country are cautiously welcoming its first moves. 

"The panic reactions we're seeing to this turnaround are quite normal -- in reality, the new government will continue cooperating with the European Union," said Archbishop Nikolaos Printezis, secretary-general of Greece's six-member bishops' conference.

"However, Greek voters are no longer prepared to follow the EU's orders, so a change of mentalities is clearly needed. Although the interests of churches like ours will be of secondary concern to those now in power, I think we can be hopeful our possibilities will improve."

After just two years as Greece's main opposition, the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, won on a pledge to renegotiate the country's vast $270 billion bailout, nationalize banks and ditch austerity policies "until growth and employment return."

Syriza's 40-year-old leader, Alexis Tsipras, made a start at his first Cabinet meeting as prime minister by raising the minimum wage and rehiring laid-off public sector employees. 

But Syriza is expected to implement other reforms, too, including curbing the privileges of the established Orthodox church, which for decades has cold-shouldered Greece's Catholic and Protestant minorities. 

Among Catholics who might otherwise have feared a leftist anti-clerical administration, Syriza's win has encountered optimism.

Bishops' conference president Archbishop Franghiskos Papamanolis assured Vatican Radio that Greeks were "seeking a path of solidarity not surrender," while the newly installed archbishop of Athens, Mgsr. Sevastianos Rossolatos, confidently predicted most Greeks would prefer, despite the anti-European mood, to remain in the EU.

Catholics make up just 3 percent of the 11 million inhabitants of Greece and have long complained of discrimination and marginalization. 

The predominant Orthodox church's claim to the spiritual loyalty of 97 percent of the population bears no relation to active membership. But the church's pre-eminence has until now appeared unassailable.

The Greek constitution declares Orthodoxy the ''prevailing religion," prohibits Bible translations without Orthodox consent and requires public office-holders to take a religious oath. 

In 2006, Greek members of parliament voted to review the Orthodox church's official status, while in October, Catholics, Protestants and other denominations gained greater rights under a new law, the first on religious minorities for almost seven decades. 

However, Printezis says the Catholic church's six dioceses and archdioceses are still being denied "official acceptance." Although the Greek state pays the salaries of Orthodox clergy, it offers nothing to Catholics. Printezis said Orthodox leaders have wielded an effective veto over government policy on religion.

"The Orthodox church forms the majority here and should cooperate with the state for the good of humanity -- but not at the expense of other churches," the archbishop told NCR. "I think things will be different now as steps are taken to make church and state independent of each other in their respective spheres."

There are signs of change.

Syriza has pledged to modify the Orthodox church's ascendancy by abolishing its tax exemptions and financial privileges, using its extensive property holdings "for the homeless," and reforming the constitution "to guarantee separation of church and state."

Meeting the Orthodox church's leader, Archbishop Hieronymos II of Athens, a day after the election, Tspiras said he had decided to become the first Greek head of government not to take the traditional Orthodox oath.

The Orthodox church's website said the prime minister had nevertheless requested the archbishop's blessing. But most of Greece's 40 new government members followed Tsipras' lead and also declined the oath, taking a civil alternative in front of President Karolas Papoulias. 

And while the symbolic gesture sparked angry Orthodox reactions, calls for change appear to be growing within the Orthodox church itself. 

A least one prominent Orthodox archbishop defended Tsipras' move. 

"This oath is very important for those who believe in God, but a great travesty for those who don't," Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis told Greece daily newspaper Ekathemerini. "Many now believe the religious oath should be abolished -- since people merely perjure themselves at most swearing-in ceremonies."

Printezis said Catholics voted for a range of parties "according to their material rather than spiritual interests," with many opting for Syriza candidates rather their more traditional center-right choices.  

He agrees that the Tsipras government will find it too hard to work with Greece's foreign partners and face "great difficulties" maintaining membership of the Euro single currency. But the atmosphere looks set to improve for most citizens, the archbishop said, while the new coalition appears determined to treat religious minorities with greater "openness and equality." 

"Up to now, there's been a very obvious division between Orthodox citizens and those of other faiths -- if you were Orthodox, all was well, but if you were Catholic or Protestant, it wasn't," Printezis said.

"What we're witnessing now is something new in our country's history, and we must be patient with the results. But this government has come up solutions and recipes for change. There've been other times in our past when we had to cooperate respectfully and show better regard for each other."

[Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer covering European church news from Warsaw, Poland, and Oxford, England. His latest two-volume book, The God of the Gulag, will be published in 2015.]

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