The Church Question in Greece: Reaction rallies under a religious flag

The political climate is hotting up along with the weather. The streets of Athens and Salonika are filled with noisy demonstrators waving flags and placards directed against the Pasok government of Costas Simitis (the Greek Tony Blair). But these are demonstrations with a difference. At the head march black-robed bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church, who claim to represent the big majority of the Greek people.

At this time of year, with temperatures soaring into the high thirties, most Greeks would normally be thinking about their annual vacations by the sea. Political life would be winding down, and the newspapers would be full of the usual summer nonsense about football, millionaires and film stars.

But this year things look very different. The political climate is hotting up along with the weather. The streets of Athens and Salonika are filled with noisy demonstrators waving flags and placards directed against the Pasok government of Costas Simitis (the Greek Tony Blair). But these are demonstrations with a difference. At the head march black-robed bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church, who claim to represent the big majority of the Greek people—or rather, all of it.

The claims of the Greek Church are quite extravagant. Indeed, they go so far as to affirm that membership of the Orthodox church is the defining characteristic of every "real Greek", thus depriving every non-believer, not just of the joys of Paradise in the next world, but even of his or her nationality in the present one. Nor is this an entirely empty claim. Alone of all the countries of Europe, Greece maintains a system whereby the religious affiliation of every citizen is inscribed in his or her (compulsory) identity card.

This extraordinary state of affairs is at the heart of the present crisis, which has led to an open confrontation between Church and state that has stirred up a wave of anger and bitterness that is spilling over onto the streets.

Prime Minister Simitis is no radical. He has steered the Pasok steadily to the right and carried through a policy of privatisation and cuts strictly in line with the dictates of the IMF and the EU. Paradoxically, it is his slavish zeal in carrying out the dictates of Brussels that has landed him in the present mess.

The Euro-bureaucrats in Brussels, motivated by their instinct for orderliness and uniformity, decide that all identity cards in the EU should conform to the same standards. Since religious affiliation does not form part of these standards, the order was issued to Athens to fall into line. And on this, as on every other issue related to Europe, Simitis immediately jumps, like a well-trained circus dog jumping through a hoop in order to earn the plaudits (and escape the stick) of his master.

However, what seems reasonable on the desk is Brussels can appear in an entirely different light in Greece. The Establishment of the Greek Orthodox Church has very close relations with the state, and derives a very respectable income from the same. Thus, any move that might call into question this sacred relationship immediately sets all the alarm bells ringing in the Holy Synod.

The suggestion that religious affiliation should be deleted from identity cards immediately provoked a storm of indignation from the Holy Fathers, who lost no time in reasserting its claim to represent the Greek people, although nobody can remember when these bishops ever presented themselves for election. On Tuesday the sixth of June, a plenary session of the bishops decided to hold two mass protest rallies in Athens and Salonika against the government's decision to erase the religious beliefs from the ID. Since then the question has become increasingly aggravated.

At the head of this campaign stands Archbishop Christodoulos, who claims to be acting under the direct inspiration of the Almighty (his name signifies "slave of Christ"). He also claims to be a "man of the people". On the former claim we are in no position to express a firm judgement one way or the other. On the second, however, there is plenty of room for doubt.

Under the notorious regime of the Junta, the leaders of the Orthodox Church played a shameful role as collaborators. The Patriarch actually blessed this bloodstained dictatorship, which was characterised by mass arrests, murder and torture. At no time did the Church express its opposition of these horrors. It organised no mass rallies, but kept its mouth firmly shut, and continued to pocket its lavish subsidies.

And Christodoulos? Like the others, he was quite content with the rule of the colonels—those hangmen of the Greek people. And far more recently than that he showed his real political sympathies as a regular contributor to the extreme right wing, semi fascist newspaper Stokhos.

By appealing to the most backward and chauvinist sentiments, Christodoulos and his supporters have managed to put together a sizeable coalition of reactionary elements. On 21st of June they got about 150,000 people to demonstrate on the streets of Athens. Apart from the usual right wing elements, enraged petty bourgeois and religious fanatics, on the fringes of this movement there is a more sinister element, as shown by the desecration of Jewish graves with such slogans as "Hitler was right and placards on demonstrations like "Jews, Masons, nothing can save you."

One of the leaders of the anti-government demonstrations, Panayotis Lyras, was quoted in the Athens daily paper Kathimerini as saying: "We ask our politicians: Are they listening to the Greek Orthodox people, or the Jewish lobby?" And he added a threat: "Those who lay a hand on Orthodoxy will pay for it. There are battles ahead."

With such demagogic speeches the leaders of the Church movement are attempting, with some success, to whip up the most backward and reactionary elements in Greek society. To a country in which the experience of the dictatorship of the colonels is a recent memory, and in which that of the Civil War that followed the Second World War is spoken of still as if it occurred the day before yesterday, such language is no joke.

The issue of whether a citizen's religious affiliation should be inscribed on an identity card at first sight may seem trivial. In reality it is not so. The question of freedom of conscience—the right to believe in any religion or in none, without interference or coercion by the state—is an elementary democratic demand that dates from the dawn of capitalism. In England and Holland it was a fundamental element in the bourgeois revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Likewise in France and America, it was established by the bourgeoisie through revolutionary means. To this day in the USA the separation of religion from the state (in particular the schools) is rigorously enforced, although there too the religious right is attempting to put the clock back to the age of medieval barbarism.

Marxism is a scientific doctrine based upon the philosophy of dialectical materialism. As such, it is incompatible with religion in general. But Marxists have never held the view that religion can or should be repressed by the state. If men and women wish to dope themselves with religious opium, that is their own affair. The state has no right to force people to think or believe in a certain way. But for that very reason the state has no right to promote one religion over and above other faiths. That is a clear violation of the democratic rights of individuals.

As far as education is concerned, religion should play absolutely no role in it. The state has an obligation to the new generation of youth to provide it with the most advanced, rational and scientific education possible. If people wish to provide their children with religious education, that is also their own affair. But it must be done outside the school, in their own time and at their own expense. The very idea of a particular church being subsidised out of the taxes of the whole of society in order to indoctrinate the minds of young children with religion is an abomination from the standpoint of democracy and reason. In any really democratic and civilised society it would be considered intolerable.

It is a measure of the completely reactionary and retrograde character of the Greek bourgeoisie that almost two centuries after gaining independence from Ottoman slavery, they have still not succeeded in achieving such an elementary democratic demand as the separation of Church and state. On the contrary, the Church is firmly tied to the state from which it annually draws a huge subsidy, paid for out of the taxes of every Greek citizen, whether they are believers or not. In addition to this, the Church has colossal wealth in the form of property, land, buildings and—why not?—the stock exchange. Considering the poverty of its Founder and the early Christians who relinquished all material wealth as a condition for entering the Church, this is not at all a bad result!

The leaders of the Greek Church try to attract public support by wrapping themselves in the national flag and appealing to patriotism and historic tradition. But even the most cursory glance at Greek history casts doubt on all this posturing. As a matter of fact, the leaders of the Greek Church (with some noble exceptions) always had a very cosy relation with the existing powers—including the Turks. They collaborated with every reactionary regime and backed the rich and powerful against the poor and oppressed. In this, of course, they acted no differently to the leaders of other Churches. It is sufficient to mention the collaboration of the Vatican with Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, or the active support of the Spanish Church for fascism in the Civil War, which they would now prefer to forget but which will be forever engraved in the annals of history in letters of blood.

These reactionary right wing demagogues and spiritual tax-gatherers lie in their teeth when they claim that the disgusting practice of inscribing religious affiliation on identity cards is a Greek "tradition" which the Church must defend. It is not a Greek custom at all. As a matter of fact, it was the imposition of a foreign power upon the Greek people in a fairly recent past, within living memory. This abomination was introduced by the Gestapo into Greece in the dark days of German fascist occupation. as a means of identifying Jews and sending them to their deaths in the gas chambers

It is a measure of the reactionary nature of Christodoulos and the right wing gang he represents that they are prepared to fight to keep a vile law introduced by the German Nazis This little detail tells us all we need to know about these gentlemen.

No, this is not at all a secondary issue for the Greek working class. The attitude to this question is a decisive question in defining every one of the political tendencies in Greece. As far as the right wing is concerned, the issue is a simple one. All the forces of reaction—from the "respectable" conservatives of New Democracy to the representatives of Bonapartist and fascist reaction—have immediately mobilised under the banner of Christodoulos. But what of the Left?

Incredibly, the so-called Communist Party has refused to back the government's measure. In effect, CP leaders back the Church against the Pasok government, accusing Simitis of "treating the Church with contempt" (Kathimerini, 8th June). The sorry Pasok "Lefts" are no better. They moan that the government's measure in changing the identity cards was "a mistake" and "premature", and so on and so forth.

Let us speak frankly. These positions represent a cowardly betrayal of the most elementary positions of socialism. They must be decisively rejected by the working class.

Of course, we understand that Simitis has nothing in common with socialism. His right wing policies have played a disastrous role and nearly led to the defeat of the Pasok at the recent election, when the government's majority was slashed. In fact, it is the disillusionment of the working class with Pasok which has led to the present situation where the initiative has passed to the right wing. A few years ago, when the workers were on the offensive, such an open mobilisation of reaction would have been unthinkable. They would have immediately been met by massive counter-demonstrations and swept off the streets.

But now the situation has changed. The working class, having suffered a series of set-backs and disappointments, has its head down. Under such conditions, the rats come out from under the stones. That is the fundamental reason for the present situation.

The open mobilisation of the forces of reaction in Greece is a serious matter which should have sent a clarion call through all the Socialist and Communist organisations. Not that reaction is on the order of the day in Greece today. The conditions for a Bonapartist reaction (let alone fascism) are absent at the present time. Nevertheless, if they are allowed to succeed, the present mobilisation will be a preparation for a more determined movement in the direction of reaction and even dictatorship in the future. All serious Socialists, Communists and trade unionists should combine to defeat it.

This in no way implies support for Simitis and his policies. On the contrary. These right wing policies are directly responsible for the present mess. Marxists will explain this to the working class and explain the need for a real socialist policy, for the socialist transformation of society in Greece and internationally. But as the same time, it is necessary to unite the labour movement in struggle against reaction.

Our slogan must be the same as Lenin's slogan in 1917: "PATIENTLY EXPLAIN!" Undoubtedly, many of those who participate on Church-organised demonstrations are neither fascists or reactionaries, but ordinary people who have been deceived and misled by the Church. They are angry at the policies of Simitis which have led to falling living standards, cuts and privatisations. They are understandably suspicious of the capitalist Common Market and resent the interference of the remote and insensitive "eurocrats" of Brussels who tell them what to eat and drink in the most petty and stupid fashion, ignoring their traditions, way of life and wishes. All this is grist to the mill of the Church and reaction. But if the issues are explained properly, many of these people would understand and be convinced.

On the immediate question, it is ABC that Marxists are in favour of the deleting of any reference to religious affiliation from identity documents. But this is not enough. It is necessary to fight for the complete separation of Church and state (not only in Greece, but everywhere). It is necessary to wage a campaign, listing the billions of drachmas which the Church milks from the people every year in subsidies. It is necessary to publish the huge wealth which the Church has concentrated into its hands. This is not "the People's Church"! It is the Church of the wealthy and powerful. A Church of the landowners and capitalists, for the landowners and capitalists.

But the mere demand for the separation of Church and state is also insufficient. It is necessary to raise the demand for the nationalisation of the property of the Church for the benefit of the whole people. It is necessary to explain how many schools, hospitals and houses could be built with this money if it was returned to the Greek people. But in order to do this, a serious struggle is required. The working class must be at least as prepared as its enemies to mobilise its forces for struggle!

For his part, Simitis now probably wishes he had never started the row, but it is too late to backtrack—at least totally. Publicly, the Pasok leadership attempts to put on a bold face. There is no question, it says, of backing down in the issue of the identity cards. The government accuses the Church leaders of embarking on a dangerous road: "The Church of Greece has chosen an extremely slippery course, pursuing a pointless and irrational deterioration in its relations with the State."

But behind the scenes the government is clearly striving to do a deal with the Church. Although Simitis and the other right wing socialist leaders are anxious to do the bidding of Brussels, they are not so anxious to enter on a collision course with the Church that would sharply polarise Greek society to the left and right and could give rise to a revolutionary situation, much the same as the Dryfus case did in France just over a hundred years ago.

The government's attempts to defuse the issue and reach a compromise with the forces of clerical reaction verge upon the comical. It has been suggested that Christodoulos and Simitis might be able to meet "by accident" and talk things over over a cup of Greek coffee! Of course, there could be no compromise over the issue of the identity cards. But maybe the government could make things a little sweeter by guaranteeing the Church's privileges in other fields, and, yes, a few billion drachmas more of taxpayers' money put in the Church's pockets would not be a bad idea, and so on. Karl Marx once pointed out that the hierarchy of the Church of England would prefer to renounce nine-tenths of its doctrine than one tenth of its income. The leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church (or the Roman Catholic, or any other) is very much of the same mind.

It is therefore quite possible that a rotten compromise will be reached that will settle the question—for the time being. But if no compromise is reached, Greece will face a hot autumn yet again.