* Government cutting priests' numbers and salaries
* Demand for church charity soaring as crisis bites
* Conservative church turns to modern business deals
By Harry Papachristou
ATHENS, Αpril 20 Close links between the Greek
state and the Orthodox Church are turning from a blessing for
the clergy into a curse as the debt-laden government struggles
to fund the ancient institution, just as impoverished Greeks
need its charitable work most.
Starved of money as the state makes huge spending cuts, the
deeply conservative church which grew from one of the earliest
centres of Christianity is seeking new sources of funds.
But despite a new spirit of enterprise, such as at one
monastery which wants to build a solar energy farm, numbers of
priests are dwindling, those that remain are suffering pay cuts,
and the church is fighting to keep soup kitchens open as
unemployment soars and poverty deepens.
"The tills are empty and the system is collapsing," said
Ignatios Stavropoulos, a modernising priest who has his own page
on LinkedIn, a social website for professionals.
Under a 60-year-old treaty, the state agreed to pay priests'
salaries in exchange for large amount of church property,
including l a nd. Bu t this means more than 10,000 priests are now
on the government payroll, putting a 190 million euro ($250
million) annual burden on the country's overstretched budget.
Under the terms of an international bailout that saved
Greece from bankruptcy, the government is cutting pay which for
a typical parish priest is about 1,000 euros a month. Athens
will also fund only one new priest to replace every 10 who
retire or die, causing shortages in remote parishes during a
deep recession when the flock most needs help.
In the cities, the church has stripped operations to the
bone to save money for the soup kitchens and charities it runs
for the growing army of the homeless and the unemployed.
Unlike in some European nations to the north where the
influence of religion is dwindling, the church plays a leading
role in the life of the Greece.
Long-bearded priests, dressed in flowing black robes, are a
common sight on the country's streets and the Orthodox faith is
recognised by the constitution as the official religion. W hen a
new government was sworn in last year, the Archbishop of Athens
blessed the prime minister and cabinet in a colourful ceremony.
According to opinion polls, about 80 percent of respondents
believe in God. This makes Greeks among Europe's strongest
Christians, although many are infrequent church-goers.
In a country where private charities and volunteering remain
embryonic, the main burden of helping the destitute and
downtrodden falls on church shoulders.
But attitudes towards the church are mixed and it often
draws criticism for being too close to the state.
Many citizens believe it still owns too much property, pays
too little in taxes, and generally fails to contribute its fair
share as ordinary Greeks' tax bills soar under the austerity
demanded by the country's bailout from the EU and IMF.
The church dismisses such notions. "It's a myth that we're
drowning in money," said Father Irinaios Laftsis, a priest in
the northern diocese of Alexandroupolis.
Over the past decades the church has transferred 96 percent
of its property to the state. It also paid 12.6 million euros in
taxes in 2011, it said last month, stressing that the church was
treated no differently from any other non-profit organisation.
To cover the shortage of priests, some bishops are
permitting laymen to take services. These volunteers receive no
state wages and don't wear the characteristic vestments.
For instance, a retired army officer recently started
holding mass at Avantas, a village close to the eastern border
with Turkey, said Father Irinaios. "Priests in small villages
retire or pass away and there is nobody to replace them," he
said. "We are going to have a huge problem."
The church is already slashing its operating expenses to
cope with the rising costs of its social work. Last year, it
spent almost 96 million euros on the 700-odd charities it runs.
"The crisis does not only affect our charities' functioning,
it also threatens their very existence," Bishop Efstathios of
Sparta said earlier this month. State pension funds had stopped
paying contributions to the charities he runs for almost a year,
Building or restoration work on churches, some home to
ancient frescoes and ikons, has often ground to a halt while
many are not properly heated during the harsh Greek winter to
cut back on fuel expenses.
Economies are being made at all levels. Church orders for
candles dropped 40 percent this Easter season, a religious items
merchant in the southern province of Arcadia told Reuters.
OFF THE AIR
In February, the church briefly took its 23-year-old,
cash-strapped radio station off the air, depriving listeners of
the daily mix of sermons and cultural programmes.
Spreading poverty is making matters even worse.
Austerity-pinched believers are cutting down on private
donations while businesses are going belly up, depriving the
church of rental income and swelling the queues in its soup
"Needs are increasing while resources are falling," said
Father Vassileios Hatzavas, who runs the Athens Archbishopric's
poor relief fund.
As Greek unemployment soars to record levels, soup kitchen
rations more than doubled in Athens last year to about 10,000 a
day, not counting about 3,000 food packages sent to families
each month, Hatzavas said.
As the government tightens its purse strings, the clergy are
increasingly looking to alternative revenue sources.
Short of cash and with much of its still abundant real
estate tied up in ownership disputes, the church is seeking
cooperation with municipalities, the army or private business to
develop sites, Hatzavas said.
For the first time, the church sent an official delegation
last month to a religious tourism fair in Russia, the world's
biggest Christian Orthodox country and a major tourism target.
Also, Penteli monastery outside Athens is planning to build a
solar park to tap into subsidies for renewable energy producers.
Some priests may have gone too far in their fund-raising
zeal, such as Efraim, abbot of the 1,000-year-old Vatopedi
Efraim masterminded a scheme six years ago under which monks
at the monastery on Mount Athos, a independent Orthodox
peninsular enclave, persuaded government officials to exchange
cheap farmland for prime Athens real estate.
Efraim has been charged with a fraudulent deal which
prosecutors say cost the state tens of millions of euros.
Notwithstanding the Vatopedi affair, the crisis is offering
the church a chance to reduce its financial dependence on the
state via legitimate business enterprises, as other churches did
"It's a matter of survival for the Church," Stavropoulos