Holy row erupts over Greek PM's church salary reform bid

©Agence France-Presse

At the heart of the dispute triggered by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C) are clerical salaries and significant amount of land that has been claimed by both Church and state for decades

Athens (AFP) - A holy row has erupted in Greece after an attempt by atheist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to overhaul historically close links between the state and the powerful Orthodox Church. 

Amid ongoing efforts to revise the Greek constitution to make the state "religion-neutral", Tsipras has split the Church by trying to broker a deal directly with its head, Archbishop Ieronymos.

At the heart of the dispute are clerical salaries -- until now paid by the state -- and a significant amount of land, its exact worth still under evaluation, that has been claimed by both Church and state for decades.

To break the deadlock, Tsipras and Ieronymos announced earlier this month that a joint state-church fund would be created to develop this property.

The PM also announced that Greece's 10,000 clerics would be effectively stripped of their status as civil servants, though their salary would still be paid out of a different state account.

The pair hailed the agreement as "historic". Ahead of an election year in 2019, the government trumpeted the move would also, on paper, free 10,000 state jobs in a country with soaring unemployment.

With his Syriza party trailing in polls and trying to hold together his coalition government, analysts say Tsipras may have been trying to win over his disillusioned left-wing base. But the church spat provoked swift criticism across the board. 

Tsipras' main domestic rival Kyriakos Mitsotakis, head of the conservative New Democracy party, accused the PM of "exploiting" the issue for electoral gain.

'Red line' salaries

If Ieronymos thought the Church was united behind the initiative, he was also mistaken.

On November 16, the Holy Synod of Greek bishops -- the governing body of the Orthodox Church of Greece -- rejected the state's pay modifications and said further talks were required on the overall deal.

Keeping their salary status unchanged was a "red line" for the clergy, said one of the most outspoken opponents to the agreement, Bishop Chrysostomos of Messinia.

Speaking to Skai TV, the bishop claimed that out of the Synod's 82 bishops, 73 were against the deal.

The union of Greek priests also accused the government of carrying out an "attack" on their labour rights.

In a bid to calm tempers, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said the government would hold further talks with the Church of Greece, a process expected to last up to four months.

"The government is in no rush," Tzanakopoulos said.

The Orthodox Church is one of the most powerful institutions in the country, with influence in politics and justice. 

In 2000, backed by massive rallies, the Church tried but failed to force the then socialist government to keep religion on Greeks' identity cards.

Though he has cultivated close ties with Ieronymos, Tsipras is the first Greek prime minister not to have taken a religious oath of office.

He is also in a civil partnership with the mother of his two children, also rare for a Greek politician.

To Michalis Tsapogas, a jurist who co-authored a treatise promoting the separation of Church and state, Tsipras' church initiative "is not even a good start."

"It leaves aside all the important questions, such as the status of other religions or the Church's involvement in school curricula," he told AFP.

'Bungled approach'

Ioannis Petrou, an honourary professor of theology at Thessaloniki university, said both sides could benefit from a true separation, but the government had bungled its approach.

Salaries are a "casus belli and raising the issue to please (left-wing) voters was a mistake," Petrou said, arguing that more diplomacy was needed.

Even inside Tsipras' Syriza party the issue has sowed division.

Nikos Filis, a former education minister sacked in 2016 for opposing the Church, has warned that the leftists risked entering into an "unacceptable financial transaction".

Speaking of a "multi-tentacled embrace" between Church and state, Filis questioned the wisdom of the state continuing to pay for 10,000 priests -- an annual cost of some 200 million euros ($229 million) -- given its post-crisis finances.

"Did you know that during the (crisis) years we only had 8,000 full-time hospital doctors?" Filis told Pontiki weekly.

Church officials have consistently bemoaned the level of tax levied on clerical real estate -- over 1.8 million euros in 2018 -- pointing to church land donations in the 19th century for schools, public squares and other state infrastructure during the early history of the modern Greek state.