Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki— an important Metropolis of Greece’s Orthodox Church and seat of the country’s second largest city had to cut his sermon short last week when he brought politics into the Church.
Church and state— until very recently, went hand in hand in Greece. Prime Ministers gave oaths on Bibles and there wasn’t a government, civic or community activity taking place without a bishop or print present. But when an atheist became prime minister in Greece, things began to change.
Tsipras opted to take a civilian oath, not on a Bible— although he did invite the Archbishop of Greece to be present at the swearing in. His government was also quick to promote legislation that was unpopular with the Church, including civil union laws catering to same sex couples.
It may not come as a surprise that the Church is siding with the “Yes” camp, in opposition to the government’s official position.
Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki told the congregation they had the right to vote however they wished, but that he, personally, would “vote for Europe” — at which point the assembly erupted with a mix of responses, some applauding while others shouting objections.
In Athens, the head of the national Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos II, has thrown the weight of his office behind the “yes” vote. In a statement released Wednesday, the archbishop wrote: “We have to promise our children a Greece of growth and progress. A Greece that will move on with self confidence and safety, flesh of the flesh of the hard core of the common European family.”
He also called for harmony and calm:
“The times we are living in are maybe the most crucial ones for our Nation since after World War Two. It’s a time of responsibility for everyone. For every institution in the country, for the political parties, the church, for each and every Greek. We are all united by the love for our country. The anxiety for its present and its future. Nothing separates us. That is why we must not allow the poison of division contaminate our souls. It will be a crime burdening the next generations.”
But not all Greek Orthodox priests are lining up behind the official position of their archbishop. At a recent pro-government rally in Syntagma Square in Athens, numerous priests were spotted protesting the austerity measures outside the Greek Parliament., in concert with the government’s encouragement of a “no” vote.
Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, told The Huffington Post that two important factors may have led the hierarchy to their decision.
The first is the religious ties the Orthodox Church has with Europe. “The Church of Greece sees Orthodoxy as part of the European fabric and history and understands Greece to be an important part of the European project,” Prodromou said.
Prodromou also suggests that the second reason church leaders are supporting the “yes” vote is that they feel the humanitarian crisis would grow much worse if Greece were to exit the eurozone. The church has played an important role in recent years as Greek society has suffered under the austerity measures. Through its charity wing called Apostoli, the church has maintained a massive food distribution operation throughout Greece and has provided job training and shelter for Greek citizens, as well as for the growing immigrant population.
Of course, the third reason behind the Church’s official position could very well be to oppose an atheist prime minister leading the country. It is widely believed that Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza government might not survive if the “yes” votes win the referendum.