Church fortune to remain sacrosanct

As the country struggles with the crisis and its consequences, the assets of the Orthodox Church have yet to be affected by the government’s stringent austerity measures. Le Monde reports on a taboo that protects the Church’s close links with the state and the clergy’s influence on public policy.

Published on 26 September 2011 at 14:27
Athens, 2 April, 2011. An Orthodox priest at Easter ceremonies to mark "Apokathelosis".

The Church and the Greek monasteries will not pay the new highly unpopular property tax which was hastily drummed up on Sunday, 11 September, by the Greek government in a bid to meet the fiscal targets set by bail-out fund donors. In response to the outcry generated by this news, however, a spokesman for the Ministry of Finance declared that “the Church will be taxed on the property it operates commercially," although houses of worship and charities will remain exempt. But the trouble is that the boundaries between these different types of assets are sometimes blurred and the books of the Orthodox Church are far from transparent.

The wealth of the Church is still a taboo subject in Greece. “Its income is taxable, but there are two big problems,” warns Polikarpos Karamouzis, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at the Aegean University in Rhodes. “There is no economic system that could chart its true revenues, and no one knows the extent of its properties, because there is no central land registry."

This suits both the Church and the State, “since politicians do not have to take on the Orthodox authorities," says Stefanos Manos, an independent member of the Greek parliament and one of the few politicians to request a separation of church and state. "The Church of Greece is a national church”, explains Polikarpos Karamouzis. “This means there is a political connection between the church and the state that has given the church its privileges. The Church’s spiritual role is closely tied to its political role, which keeps alive some confusion among the faithful and citizens, and that is what is being exploited by vote-hungry politicians."

Clergy paid by the state

The priests are shapers of public opinion that politicians prefer not to offend. In a text distributed to all parishes in December 2010, the Holy Synod of thirteen bishops denounced the "troika" – the representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and European Central Bank – as a "foreign occupation” force.

The Orthodox Church is one of the pillars of the Greek nation — a country where the Constitution was written "in the name of the Holy Trinity, a trinity consubstantial (i.e. one essence, one nature) and indivisible," and one where priests come to schools on the first day of a new academic year to bless the pupils. They also bless new parliaments too. Catechism is taught in public schools, and people of all ages make the sign of the cross when they pass by churches.

In March 2010, George Papandreou’s Socialist government decided to levy a tax on churches of up to 20 percent on commercial income and between five and ten percent for reported donations. The 10,000 priests and bishops are paid by the state, at a budgetary outlay of 220 million euros a year.

Former finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, had planned to cut back on the state’s participation in the clergy’s salaries, but as soon as the news filtered out the government’s willpower evaporated. Current finance minister Evangélos Venizélos, who is very close to the Orthodox community, has no such ambitions.

Church's wealth "a myth"?

The controversy stirred by the exemption from this new tax pushed the church to venture forth from the quiet of its cloisters, and on Friday, Sept. 16 it published the amount of tax it pays. Its directorate for Economic Services affirmed that in 2010 it paid 2.5 million euros in taxes on rental income and revenues. It also revealed that it owns thirty properties in Athens (six of which are unoccupied) and fourteen in Thessaloniki.

In response to increasingly common attacks on the issue of Church property, the Archbishop of Athens, Hieronymus, the highest authority of the Orthodox Church in Greece, has responded by insisting that the wealth of the Church is "a myth". He further argues that in the wake of numerous confiscations of its property, the Church now has only four percent of the assets it held before the Greek revolution of 1821.

Newspapers have published a number of stories on the fortunes of the Orthodox Church. According to Kathimerini (centre-right), its assets amounted to 700 million euros in 2008, while Stefanos Manos, a former Minister of Economy, has estimated them at over one billion euros. In the context of these figures, which have not been officially confirmed, the 2.5 million euros paid by the Church does seem small.

At the same time, these estimates only take into account one part of the ecclesiastical assets, which is directly managed by the central services of the Church. They do not include property owned by parishes, some of which are very rich. Nor do they take into account property directly owned by the 80 Greek bishops who enjoy substantial autonomy, or, the assets of 450 monasteries, whether dependent on the Church of Greece or not (like those of Mount Athos, which have a separate status). For completeness, we should also mention the property owned in Greece by the Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria.

Greece's second largest landowner

With 130,000 hectares, the Church is the second largest landowner in the country (after the Greek state). As Vassilis Meichanetsidis of the Communications Service of the Archdiocese of Athens points out, much of "this is forest land, on terrain that is unsuitable for building," but Church holdings also include buildings in uptown Athens and in the wealthy seaside suburbs south of the capital.

The church owns a 1.5 percent stake in the National Bank of Greece and has a representative on the board, the Metropolitan of Ioannina, Theoklitos, who according to the financial magazine Forbes received 24,000 euros in attendance fees in 2008.

Even bare terrain can bring in business. The monks of the rich monastery of Penteli, north of Athens, are looking to investors for one billion euros to exploit some of their mountain by turning it into a photovoltaic park to capture solar energy. This is the new official strategy of the Church: to rent out its property for the benefit of its charities. In 2010 the Church spent over 100 million euros on charitable activities, which have increased in the crisis. "In Athens we provide 10,000 to 12,000 meals every day," explains Vassilis Meichanetsidis.

But the philanthropic outreach of the Orthodox Church is relatively new and has taken some blows. In 2010, it was forced to shut down and change the name of its Solidarity charity due to very poor management.

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