Getting to the church on time

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos

When Alexis Tsipras held a televised news conference last week, standing side-by-side with the head of the Church of Greece – Archbishop Ieronymos, the impression given was that a momentous point in the relationship between the Greek state and the church had been reached. As each day passes, though, it seems less historic and more business-as-usual.

The agreement announced by Tsipras, which Ieronymos later emphasised was only an outline deal, supposedly sought to settle issues that have caused friction between the political system and church for decades.

Its main elements are that the state recognises it obtained church property in 1939 for which the latter was not appropriately compensated and that, in recognition of this, the government will pay priests’ wages as a form of recompense.

However, the two sides also supposedly agreed that some 10,000 priests who are currently treated as civil servants would be transferred from the public sector payroll. The state would continue, though, to fund their wages (an annual amount of roughly 200 million euros) by paying the amount directly to the church. However, the church and the state would form a common fund to make commercial use of church property and real estate whose ownership is disputed, with the revenues being split evenly between the two parties.

The aim would be for the priests’ wages to be covered by the income earnt by the jointly-managed fund within a few years, ridding the taxpayer of this fiscal burden.

There are more facets to the pact but at its core it would involve the church agreeing to receive 200 million euros a year in return for dropping its legal claims regarding property it believes was taken from it unfairly before 1939. In the process, its priests would lose their status as civil servants.

Within hours of Tsipras and Ieronymos appearing on TV, it became clear that the government’s focus was mainly on the departure of the priests from the civil service wage bill. Two nights later, the SYRIZA leader took part in a televised interview in which he claimed that the agreement with the church would allow the government to make 10,000 new civil service hirings as it agreed with Greece’s lenders earlier this year on a 1:1 departures to hirings ratio. He added that the positions would be advertised next year (when elections are due), although the appointments would be made in 2020.

The difficulty the coalition had in containing its excitement about this announcement served as a tip-off about the real motives behind announcing this deal with the church. Sure, Tsipras wanted to show that he does not fear tackling problems that have persisted for decades; of course he wanted to appease those opposed to his bid to tinker with Article 3 of the constitution (on the role of the church) in order to enshrine the “religious neutrality” of the Greek state (which a leading New Democracy MP argued would lead to the end of public celebrations of Christmas), and naturally he wanted to reassure his leftist audience that he is staying true to at least some of SYRIZA’s principles, such as reining in the church’s influence. But the driving force behind the draft settlement with the church appears to be that it offers the opportunity to announce another 10,000 public sector hires in an election year.

Offering public jobs is a tried-and-tested method of attracting voters in Greece but had not been available to parties in recent years as Athens was under pressure to reduce the civil service headcount. The agreement with the lenders means SYRIZA is not in a position to grow the public sector, at least in terms of permanent hires, but Tsipras is hoping his pact with Ieronymos will allow him to engineer some extra space.

This short-term and selfish gain overshadows the longer-term benefits that could come from the agreement unveiled last week. Priests being recognised as civil servants is an anachronism and taking them off the public sector payroll would be a useful way of reducing the friction between the church and the state (often driven by financial issues as many feel the wealthy church does not pay its way), especially if their wages can eventually be covered by the commercial use of property rather than from the beleaguered Greek taxpayer’s pockets.

Even using the vacated civil service places so public sector workers could be hired where necessary, such as the education and healthcare sectors, would be a welcome development. However, this has to happen based on a clear long-term plan about how to address deficiencies in the delivery of public services rather than scattergun hirings simply for the purposes of creating an electoral clientele and boosting poll results. It also has to be clear that it won’t be used as an excuse to return to the tactic of creating voter-clients in the public sector and disregarding the implications this has for the country’s finances and the public administration’s performance.


In this respect, New Democracy and its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis were justified in dismissing Tsipras’s supposed agreement with the church as an exercise in opportunism. The centre-right party insists there is no fiscal space for new hirings and that it will stick to its pledge to only take on one civil servant for every five that depart.

The problem, though, is that the conservatives are adamant that nothing needs to change in terms of the Greek state’s relationship with the church.

Mitsotakis says he is against any alteration of Article 3 and claimed in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday that the “state cannot underestimate the religious faith of 95 percent of our people,” in reference to the overwhelming number of Greeks who describe themselves as being Orthodox Christians. There was no discussion of whether the church wields too much influence. For example, it was only two years ago that SYRIZA’s education minister was forced to resign after a backlash from the church over changes to textbooks for religion classes in schools.

The New Democracy leader also met with the Clerics’ Union on Wednesday to assure its representatives that New Democracy wants priests to remain on the public sector payroll, before adding that his government would not be bound by any agreement struck by the Church of Greece and the current administration. There was no discussion, for instance, of adopting a model similar to Germany’s Kirchensteuer, or church tax, which allows non-believers, people of other faiths or anyone else who does not want to fund the church to opt out of handing over their money.

Mitsotakis championed his liberal values on his way to taking over the centre-right party in 2016 and has advertised them frequently since then. However, when it comes to issues that are likely to touch a nerve with New Democracy’s traditional right-wing supporters, he has displayed a reluctance to go against the grain or to even try to convince voters to move with societal, political or geopolitical shifts.

Recent examples include Mitsotakis and most of his MPs voting against a bill allowing same-sex couples to become foster parents, as well as the conservative party’s staunch stance on the Macedonia name issue. It is not necessarily that New Democracy opposed the Prespes Agreement, which aims to settle the longstanding dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), but that it did so using profoundly reactionary language that allowed government officials to be labelled sell-outs and traitors.

Now, on the church issue, Mitsotakis has again shown no desire to confront the deep conservatism within parts of his party and among some of its supporters. As in Tsipras’s case, the allure of political gains has held him back from pushing for change that could have a long-lasting, meaningful impact and show Greece has the ability to deal with serious issues in a mature way.

In short, Tsipras advocates a formula that would mean priests eventually not being paid from public coffers but his main motivation for doing so is an apparent desire to make quick hirings before the next elections. Mitsotakis opposes the appointments but insists taxpayers should continue to pay priests salaries.

For two leaders who were meant to represent something new, this all seems awfully much like the same old.

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