Greece's hard-pressed Catholics keep up hopes for better times

Paros, Greece — In the main town of this Aegean island, a stately Orthodox church casts its paternal shadow over a bustling harbor scene as massive Blue Star ferries, fresh from Athens, compete for space with luxury yachts and battered fishing boats.

In the distance, smaller chapels with their distinctive white walls and blue cupolas punctuate the dry, hilly landscape, offering a reminder of the past to people preoccupied with a very present crisis.

As financial dysfunction and economic dislocation threatened to drive Greece out of the European Union, there were hopes that islands like this, with their close social ties and traditions of self-management, could better survive the hardships endured by city inhabitants on the mainland.

With Greece's banks only now reopening after several weeks' closure, however, and the elderly and unemployed struggling to survive, all such distinctions have now disappeared -- not least among the country's beleaguered Catholics.

"Everyone in our church has been affected, wherever they are. With state taxes and duties consuming half of all our resources, parish life is being slowly devastated," Archbishop Sevastianos Rossolatos of Athens told NCR.

"At this critical time, when people are living in terrible conditions, all we can hope for is that some lasting agreement finally takes shape."

On July 13, European Union finance ministers agreed on a new 86 billion euro bailout to save Greece's faltering economy in return for draconian new spending cuts and higher taxes, although Greek voters had rejected austerity in a July 5 national referendum.

The controversial deal was approved three days later in the Greek parliament despite violent street protests and a rebellion by members of parliament from the left-wing Syriza Party of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

It remains unclear, however, whether even this will be enough to save the country from bankruptcy.

With six dioceses and archdioceses, the Catholic church makes up 3 percent of Greece's population of 11 million, compared to 97 percent who officially adhere to the Orthodox church, which is declared the ''prevailing religion" in the national constitution.

Unlike the United States and other European Union countries, Greece offers no tax exemptions to minority churches, which must pay duties on donations, legacies and Sunday collections as well as on clergy incomes. The country's Catholic minority is denied access to public funding, while Catholic clergy are routinely refused health care and Catholic communities encounter difficulties maintaining historic buildings and even gaining access to electricity supplies.

Since they were forced to close most of their charitable projects after a 48 percent tax rise in 2013, Catholic leaders have been outspoken during the crisis, blaming corruption among Greece's politicians and harsh, unrealistic attitudes among its foreign creditors.

In a June open letter to Tsipras and other party leaders, the secretary-general of the six-member Catholic bishops' conference, Archbishop Nikolaos Printezis of Naxos-Tinos-Mykonos, urged Greek politicians to seek "national, not party solutions" and to "serve rather than mislead the people."

However, government handling of the July 5 referendum was criticized as "incompetent" by the conference's Franciscan president, Archbishop Franghiskos Papamanolis of Syros and Santorini. The head of Caritas Greece, Fr. Antonios Voutsinos, told Italy's Servizio Informazione Religiosa that he feared "serious social tensions and unrest."

None of the rhetoric has eased the plight of local Catholic parishes, which have seen their incomes plummet by 70 percent, leaving them unable to help the poor and needy.

Rossolatos said he welcomes the help provided by Caritas Italy and other church supporters abroad. But current hardships have left many Catholics, like other Greeks, "disorientated and confused."

"Since ordinary people have no money, the church has no money either," Rossolatos told NCR. "And since taxation remains so heavy, there's simply nothing left for pastoral work."

He added, "We're already in debt for the future, so we can't help parishes repair and maintain their churches or provide religious care for the migrants and refugees arriving here in large numbers."

There were hopes that Greece's crisis could soften attitudes among leaders of the predominant Orthodox church who have traditionally shunned ties with Christian minorities. These hopes, too, have now faded.

Although the official Orthodox pre-eminence bears little relation to active church membership in Greece, the salaries of Orthodox clergy are paid by the state while the national constitution prohibits Bible translations without Orthodox consent and requires all public officeholders and court plaintiffs to take a religious oath.

For all its advantages, the Orthodox church has also been badly affected by the economic downturn. And while the church remains Greece's second-largest landowner after the state, Tsipras' center-right predecessor, Antonis Samaras, welcomed a decision by its governing Holy Synod in 2013 to dedicate part of its revenues to helping overcome the crisis.

Yet Orthodox archbishops and metropolitans have defended their ascendancy and showed no sympathy for minority churches, which are denied legal recognition and any state support.

In October, Catholics, Protestants, Copts and other denominations gained greater legal autonomy under a new law, the first on religious minorities for 68 years.

In January, when Syriza won power, it pledged to abolish the Orthodox church's tax exemptions and financial privileges and to reform the constitution "to guarantee separation of church and state."

In a symbolic gesture a day after his election, Tsipras visited Archbishop Hieronymos II of Athens and told him that he would be the first Greek head of government not to take the traditional religious oath.

Yet Tsipras and others have been too preoccupied with the economic crisis, Catholics say, to follow through on their pledges. Although Greece's Catholic archbishops welcomed Syriza's victory as a chance for change, disappointment has now set in.

After the latest EU deal in mid-July, Papamanolis accused Tsipras of "wasting time" with "promises he could not keep" and called for Greece's political parties to "put aside their special interests" in a government of national unity.

That's unlikely to go down well with Syriza and its backers. But Rossolatos agrees that the governing party has proved "ambivalent" in its attitude to churches and failed to make any of the promised improvements.

"There's no doubt that as a party of the left, Syriza has wanted to loosen links with the Orthodox church and implement a new policy toward Catholics," Rossolatos told NCR.

"But while they assured us they would be more objective toward us, all their attention for six months now has focused on ties with the EU, so we haven't seen any difference between this government and its predecessor," he continued. "As for the Orthodox, they've been better able to cope with the situation than the much poorer Catholic church. But they're still treating us as enemies and seeing ecumenical ties as a danger."

There are hopes, nevertheless, that some improvements may still be in the cards -- and that the fairer treatment of religious minorities could over time become one of Syriza's most striking reforms.

Catholics concede that the Orthodox church, as the largest denomination, should cooperate with the state for the good of society. But in a modern EU and NATO member country, they say, this shouldn't be done at the expense of other faith groups.

In a mid-July appeal, young Greek Orthodox theologians thanked Pope Francis and other Christian leaders for showing solidarity with their country and urged churches to work together against "forces seeking to impose a deification of the markets."

"The unfortunate resurgence of division and polarization in Europe is poisoning the policy process and traumatizing the coexistence of nations," the theologians said.

"In this bleak reality, we are convinced churches can be bridges of cooperation and dialogue, as they were after the Second World War, when churches contributed to an ecumenical spirit of reconciliation and cooperation."

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