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Greece The Orthodox Church of Greece
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    An important aspect of Greek culture is the close connection between "being Greek" and "being Orthodox," which is based on long historical tradition. In the Byzantine Empire (A.D. 330-1453), the emperor was called God's vice-regent and his empire a model of heavenly order. Given this status, the emperor could preach and receive communion like a priest and convene church councils. Under the Ottoman Empire (1453-1821), the patriarch of Constantinople exercised wide-ranging secular powers over Orthodox Christians in Greece and elsewhere in the empire. (see The Nature of Ottoman Rule , ch. 1).

    The constitution of 1975 describes the Orthodox Church as the "established religion" of Greece. The seemingly minor change from the previous constitutional term state religion was considered a significant recognition of religious plurality when the new constitution was adopted.

    The official status of the church confers special privileges and obligations. For example, the president of Greece must be affiliated with the church; he or she is sworn in according to the rites of the church; and major church holidays are also state holidays. Most top positions in the military, the judiciary, and public schools are de facto restricted to Orthodox candidates. Although the constitution stipulates freedom of religion, it also forbids all religious groups to proselytize unless they have specific permission. Although Greek law in general neither defines proselytization nor enforces the prohibition, foreigners and Greeks affiliated with some non-mainstream religious sects occasionally have been imprisoned for religious activities construed as violating the constitution. Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have not received such treatment, however.

    The church depends on the state for financial and legal support: the state pays the clergy, subsidizes the church budget, and administers church property. (In the 1980s, the church turned down an opportunity to gain greater economic independence by reorganizing its finances to pay the clergy directly.) Religious education is mandatory for Greek Orthodox children in public primary and secondary schools, and the state subsidizes religious studies at institutions of higher learning. The church is supervised by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

    The institutionalization of Greek Orthodoxy as the official state religion gives the church a powerful voice in political policy making and the organization of society. The church also has a vested interest in preventing social reform that would weaken the established social order and blur the identification of "Greekness" with Orthodoxy. Its defense of traditional values has been especially strong on issues such as the role of women; particularly in rural areas, the attitudes and values of women are predominantly defined by church doctrine.

    In 1981 the socialist PASOK government led by Andreas Papandreou came into power promising to reform antiquated aspects of Greek society. The separation of church and state was one element among PASOK's proposals. In subsequent years, the church objected strongly to separation and forced capitulation or compromise on most issues. The conservative ND, Papandreou's main opposition, had given only tepid support to the separation of church and state prior to 1981, but, beginning with the 1981 election, the ND changed its position to one of strong opposition to separation and to the rest of PASOK's social reforms.

    The only successful PASOK proposal that directly affected the church was the legalization of civil marriage ceremonies. Until 1983 the church had recognized only religious marriages and forbidden the marriage of Orthodox believers to nonbelievers. Seeing the socialist legalization of civil marriage as a threat to the foundations of society, the church used its influence in the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and street demonstrations to force a compromise in the Family Law of 1983. The original legislation would have made civil marriage the only legally recognized form, with religious marriage merely an optional ceremony. The compromise made both forms legal. Since that time, about 95 percent of marriages in Greece have occurred in the church; a large share of the civil ceremonies involved a partner not of the Orthodox faith.

    The ownership of church property was another controversial issue of the 1980s because the socialists proposed transferring fallow farmland owned by the church through a state agency to agricultural cooperatives for cultivation. This suggestion, originally made by the military dictatorship in the late 1960s, was finally abandoned in the early 1980s because of the hostility it aroused from the church toward the government. In 1987 the minister of education and religious affairs, Antonis Tritsis, revived the proposal--purportedly not as an effort to weaken the connection between the church and Greek nationhood, but to increase the church's participation in civil society. Although large numbers of lay intellectuals and some church officials supported the idea initially, the public and most of the church hierarchy saw it as an attack on church prerogatives. Under strong pressure from that constituency, supporters in the church withdrew, and the emasculated bill that was passed never was enforced.

    Lay theologians traditionally have played a large role in the intellectual base of the Orthodox Church, and the relation of church and state is a frequent topic of their voluminous writings. In 1994 the church found itself in transition, symbolized by conflict over the choice of a successor to the ailing primate, Archbishop Seraphim of Athens. At this critical point, progressive and conservative factions in the hierarchy disagreed over the church's future role: the former advocated a greater direct response to the needs of people, the latter defended the church's special status, arguing against the loss of authority that such a change might incur. In this controversy, the lay theologians played a more marginal role than they had in past policy discussions of such magnitude.

    The church is divided administratively into the Monastic Church of Greece, which has seventy-eight dioceses; the semiautonomous Church of Crete, with eight dioceses; four dioceses in the Dodecanese Islands; and the self-governing monastic community of Mt. Athos, which has constitutionally guaranteed autonomy. The church is governed by a Holy Synod consisting of all the diocesan bishops, who convene once a year under the chairmanship of the archbishop of Athens, who is automatically the primate. For day-to- day administration of the church, a supreme executive body of twelve bishops is chosen from the Holy Synod. They serve a one-year term under the primate, who serves as the synod's thirteenth member.

    The Church of Crete is made up of seven metropolitans (dioceses) and the archbishopric of Crete in the capital, Heraklion. The church is administered by a synod of the seven metropolitans, presided over by the archbishop; it is under the ultimate spiritual and administrative jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople (whose title retains the former name of Istanbul) rather than the primate of Greece. In 1994 the leader of the Church of Crete was Archbishop Timotheos. The four metropolitan sees of the Dodecanese Islands and the Monastic Republic of Mt. Athos are also administratively dependent on the patriarch of Constantinople, but the constitution gives Mt. Athos special protection. Mt. Athos is administered by a council of twenty monks, one from each monastery.

    Although the millet administrative system of the Ottoman Empire made the patriarch of Constantinople politically responsible for the entire Orthodox population in the empire, the church never had a single figure wielding the level of power and authority possessed by the pope in the Roman Catholic Church. The realm of the patriarch of Constantinople is officially called the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and it is the patriarch who has represented Orthodox believers in discussions with the Vatican about possible reunification since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. No appreciable rapprochement is expected soon, however.

    The patriarch, who is an ethnic Greek but must reside in Istanbul and be a citizen of Turkey, may not interfere in the affairs of the fifteen autocephalous churches into which Orthodox Christianity is divided. As primate of the Greek church, the archbishop of Athens differs from the pope in relying on consensus and popular approval of his decisions on administration and doctrine, rather than on the doctrine of infallibility. Orthodox doctrine, including that of the Greek branch, emphasizes the communality of its bishops and the direct preaching and performance of pastoral duties by bishops within their comparatively small dioceses. Like the other autocephalous churches, the Greek branch has its own liturgical language, but it shares with them the sacraments, doctrine, and traditions handed down from the early church as the correct, hence orthodox, practice and belief.

    Orthodox practice differs from that of other Christian religions in other ways. Orthodox babies are baptized with a threefold immersion; then they are confirmed as members of the church immediately, making them eligible to receive Holy Communion. The Anointing of the Sick is practiced not only for the dying but also for the ill because the sacrament is believed to bring healing and the forgiveness of sins, a manifestation of the Orthodox belief in the unity of body and soul.

    Of the major religious festivals on the Orthodox calendar, which are called the Twelve Great Feasts, eight honor Christ and four honor the Mother of God. Easter, the Feast of Feasts, is the most joyously celebrated holiday. The four major periods of fasting are at Lent, Christmas, Assumption, and the Fast of the Apostles. Church buildings are normally in a cross-in-square configuration with a dome and an icon-covered screen separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church. In traditional churches, worshipers stand throughout services, and seats are located only along the walls; however, many churches in Athens now provide seating throughout.

    Orthodox clergy include married and celibate priests. Married men may become priests, but marriage is not permitted after ordination, and only unmarried priests may move up past the rank of priest. The majority of priests, especially outside urban areas, have primary or secondary education and a modicum of religious training. Most urban priests have at least studied theology at a seminary; priests and bishops in larger cities normally have degrees in theology from universities in Athens or Thessaloniki.

    The village priest is the traditional preserver of Greek culture and traditions, and as such he usually enjoys high respect among his parishioners. In poorer parishes, peasants often went into the priesthood for economic advancement, and in many cases a married rural priest continued his secular trade after ordination. By the 1980s, however, the social prestige of the priesthood had dropped, so children received less encouragement to enter that profession. Increasingly university graduates in theology became teachers of religion in secondary schools rather than entering the priesthood. Observers listed the reasons for this trend as the lack of intellectual functions in the priesthood (priests do not regularly give sermons, and few become theologians) and the higher pay received by teachers.

    The monastic tradition has always been an important part of Orthodoxy. Unlike Roman Catholic monks, who may teach and do social work, Orthodox monks devote themselves to prayer, painting icons, studying, and producing manuscripts. The ascetic life is seen as an alternative to the martyrdom that monks formerly suffered under religious persecution. The monks are divided into those living as hermits, those living in monasteries, and those living in loosely linked settlements under a single spiritual director. The best- known example of the last category is Mt. Athos, where a spiritual enclave has existed since A.D. 959. In 1990 Mt. Athos, where no female is allowed, had twenty monasteries, of which seventeen were Greek, one Bulgarian, one Russian, and one Serbian. The overall number of Greek monks declined in the 1980s, although Mt. Athos continued to attract young, better-educated monks.

    The church plays a different role in Greek cities than in villages. Average church attendance in the cities, where parishes are larger and more impersonal, is lower than in villages. Overall attendance has been estimated at between 20 and 25 percent. (Weekly churchgoing is not obligatory in the Orthodox Church as it is in the Roman Catholic Church.)

    For villagers time is marked by the religious calendar, and the local church is the focal point of the community. Because the village priest is a figure familiar to all and lay committees have an input in administering church affairs, identification with village churches is closer than with urban churches. Whatever their location or pattern of public religious observance, many Greeks maintain a corner at home with icons, a special lamp, holy oil, and holy water. Many people have special relationships with saints whose intercession they ask in times of crisis. Superstition and pagan beliefs are still interwoven in religious practices in some rural areas.

    Data as of December 1994

    NOTE: The information regarding Greece on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Greece The Orthodox Church of Greece information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Greece The Orthodox Church of Greece should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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