The Greek Orthodox Church—A Religion Divided
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GREECE
FOR sincere people who love God and the truth and who have deep respect for his worship, the present situation in the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece is, to say the least, appalling. The deplorable lack of unity, the violent confrontations between fighting factions of the church, a torrent of shameful moral scandals, and the inability of a religion—which describes itself as “the only true church of God”—to provide spiritual guidance are causing many Greeks to become disappointed and disgusted.
The common people are frustrated, even enraged, by this state of affairs. A university professor, writing in a leading Greek newspaper, laments: “The Church of Greece is being torn apart by a crisis unprecedented in its intensity and duration, which puts into question [the church’s] authority and erodes the inherent value of its institutions. Unfortunately the harm continues.”
How did this situation develop? Have the close ties enjoyed by the Greek Orthodox Church with the State been truly beneficial? What is the future of these Church and State relations? What alternative exists for people seeking the true, united congregation of Christ? Let us examine the facts and see what the Bible has to say on the matter.
A Struggle for Power
When a military dictatorship ruled over Greece during the years 1967-74, it intervened actively in the affairs of the Greek Orthodox Church in order to consolidate its own power. In its effort to take over complete control, the military junta dissolved the previously elected Holy Synod—the highest executive body of the Greek Orthodox Church—and appointed a synod of its own, “according to merit,” as it was termed. When democracy was restored in 1974, the ruling body of the church was again elected according to its canonical charter. Consequently, the bishops who had formed part of the junta-appointed synod were deposed and were replaced by others.
However, a government bill that was passed in 1990 gave the dismissed bishops the right to reclaim their seats by appealing to secular courts and eventually to the highest administrative court, the Council of State. Three of those clergymen did just that, and they eventually won their cases. Today, as a result, three separate Orthodox archdioceses in Greece have two bishops each—one who is officially recognized only by the Greek Orthodox Church and one who is officially accepted by the Council of State.
The previously deposed bishops have reclaimed their seats, and they absolutely refuse to acknowledge the existence of the other bishops appointed by the official church. What is more, each of them has a large following of “religious fanatics”—as one newspaper described them—who are fervently vocal in supporting their bishop’s cause. This situation thus sparked heated and intense reactions as television screens throughout the country flashed scenes of violence, showing masses of such “fighting Christians” forcibly breaking into churches, smashing religious icons, and attacking clergymen and laymen of the opposite factions. In most of these cases, riot police had to intervene in order to restore calm. Events reached a climax in October and November 1993 in churches located in the well-to-do Athens suburb of Kifisia, and later in July and December 1994 in the city of Larissa, as riotous episodes of blind religious fanaticism shocked the public in Greece.
The most violent clashes took place on July 28, 1994, during the enthronement of Ignatius, the bishop in Larissa appointed by the Holy Synod. Bearing the front-page banner headline, “Larissa Becomes a Battlefield for the New Bishop—The Dark Ages Revived,” the newspaper Ethnos reported: “Only one term is fitting: the Dark Ages. How else could one possibly describe all the things that took place yesterday in Larissa, . . . street fights, riotous clashes, physical injuries?”
Some weeks later, opponents attacked the car of Bishop Ignatius “using iron bars and bats, after a fierce chase.” A journalist wondered: “Is it possible for one to accept that the perpetrators involved are infused with Christian sentiments when, at the same time, their fanaticism leads them to commit acts that are akin to those of gangsters, to acts of violence that could cause death? . . . And these acts are encouraged and condoned by prominent leaders of the church.”
The situation became even worse during the Christmas season. Referring to the traumatic events of December 23-26, 1994, in Larissa, the newspaper Eleftherotipia wrote: “It was a Christmas of shame in Larissa, where, once again, the long, drawn-out conflict marred the [celebration]. . . . While church bells announced the birth of Christ, police clubs were falling over the heads of the ‘righteous and unrighteous.’ Riots, clashes, tirades of curses, and arrests replaced the bestowing of Christmas good wishes and benedictions in the courtyard of the Church of Saint Constantine in Larissa. . . . The demonstrations [against Ignatius] quickly turned into verbal insults and then clashes with police. . . . They turned the church courtyard into a battlefield.”
How did people react to this? An Orthodox man commented: “I cannot understand how people who call themselves Christians can perpetrate such acts of violence during sacred religious holidays. How can I go to church when I am faced with the risk of being beaten up there?” And one devout Orthodox woman stated: “I am afraid to go to church now after all these events.”
As if this were not enough, there is also a torrent of disclosures about moral scandals involving the Greek Orthodox Church. The media have repeatedly brought to light revelations with regard to the decadent morals of certain members of the clergy—homosexual and pedophile priests, the embezzlement of finances, and the illicit trade in antiquities. The latter is possible because many clergymen have uncontrolled free access to treasures of precious icons and other valuable artifacts.
How flagrantly this situation violates the strong admonition given by the apostle Paul to Christians that they not be followers of men because this results in “dissensions” and “divisions”!—1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:1-4.
Church-State Relations—What Future?
Ever since the inception of the Greek State, the Greek Orthodox Church has enjoyed the privileged status of being the dominant religion. In Greece, as yet, there is no such thing as Church-State separation. The Constitution itself guarantees the position of the Greek Orthodox Church as the “prevailing religion” of Greece. This means that the Greek Orthodox Church permeates all sectors of public life, including the public administration, the judicial system, the police, public education, and practically every other aspect of society. This all-encompassing presence of the church has meant oppression and indescribable difficulties for religious minorities in Greece. Although the Constitution does guarantee religious freedom, whenever a religious minority attempts to claim its rights, it almost always finds itself enmeshed in an impenetrable web of religious bias, prejudice, and opposition that this Church-State relationship has woven.
A revision of the Constitution seems to be a distinct possibility in the near future, and therefore a strong demand for the separation of Church and State is already being heard. Influential Greek constitutional experts and analysts are calling attention to the problems created by this close association between Church and State. They point out that the only viable solution would be a strict separation of these two entities.
Church leaders, meanwhile, are voicing their objections to such an eventual separation. Touching upon a sensitive issue, which would be adversely affected by such a development in Church-State relations, an Orthodox bishop wrote: “As a consequence, will the State stop paying the salary of the clergymen? . . . That would mean that many parishes will be left without priests.”—Compare Matthew 6:33.
Another result of the close relationship between Church and State in Greece is that Greek law—in direct conflict with European Union regulations and the Articles of the European Convention of Human Rights, which are binding for Greece—requires that the personal identity card of all Greek citizens must indicate the religion to which each citizen belongs. Open-minded people strongly object to this because members of religious minorities usually become victims of discrimination. One journalist stated: “This fact can very likely have negative consequences as far as the rights of a religious minority to be able to exercise their religious freedom are concerned.” Commenting on this, the newspaper Ta Nea wrote: “The State should make its decisions and pass laws without any regard for the domineering ways and reactions of the church in such matters as the obligatory registering of one’s religion on his or her personal identity card.”
Stressing the urgent need for such a separation, Dimitris Tsatsos, professor of constitutional law and also a member of the European Parliament, stated: “The Church [of Greece] must stop its domineering of social, political, and educational life. The manner by which the Greek Church is operating is oppressive. It is a despot ruling over our educational system and our society.” In another interview this same professor said: “The church has terrifying power in Greece, which unfortunately is not limited to its natural habitat of ruthless conservatism, but it has even managed to infiltrate the progressive sector of Greek society as well. Personally, I demand the separation of Church and State. I demand that Orthodox Greeks be put on the same level as and be equal to the adherents of other religions in Greece.”
True Christians Are United
It is indeed difficult to find the mark of true Christianity in the Greek Orthodox Church. Jesus did not intend for divisions and schisms to develop within Christianity. In praying to his Father, he asked that his disciples might “all be one.” (John 17:21) And these disciples were to ‘have love among themselves,’ this love being the distinguishing mark of genuine followers of Christ. —John 13:35.
Unity seems to elude the Greek Orthodox Church. However, this is far from being a unique case within organized religion today. Rather, it is representative of the divisiveness that plagues the religions of Christendom.
Sincere lovers of God find this sad state of affairs difficult to reconcile with the apostle Paul’s words to true Christians at 1 Corinthians 1:10: “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”
Yes, true disciples of Jesus enjoy unbreakable unity among themselves. Because they are united by the bond of Christian love, they have no political, sectarian, or doctrinal differences. Jesus clearly explained that everyone would be able to recognize his followers by “their fruits,” or activities. (Matthew 7:16) The publishers of this magazine invite you to investigate the “fruits” of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who enjoy true Christian unity in Greece as well as everywhere else in the world.
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Priests clashed with the police
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From the book The Pictorial History of the World