Publication State / Democracy - Europe - Southeastern Europe - Authoritarianism Authoritarianism and the Greek Orthodox Church

Historical and contemporary aspects

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Alexandros Sakellariou ,

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September 2019

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Orthodoxe Priester in Leonidi, Griechenland
Four priests in Leonidi, Greece CC BY-ND 2.0, Spiros Vathis

Introduction

At first glance, it appears somewhat strange—if not questionable—to discuss or even imply the existence of any possible linkages between the Orthodox Church of Greece and authoritarianism.[1]  However, the main focus of this article is to briefly expose the Orthodox Church’s relations with authoritarian regimes throughout Greek history as well as its relations with the extreme right in more recent times, a field of research which is not easy to approach.[2] There are aspects of this topic that could be discussed in a more analytical way, but as our space is limited we decided to focus on the most crucial and well-known details of this fascinating topic. Furthermore, the main purpose of this article is to offer a first overview of this controversial subject and, in that sense, it is primarily descriptive and avoids theoretical analyses and explanations as well as difficult academic concepts.

Before proceeding to the analysis, it is crucial to briefly outline the role and place of the Orthodox Church in Greek society. The Orthodox Church of Greece used to be, and to some extent remains, a powerful institution that historically has influenced Greek society and politics in many aspects. After the establishment of the Greek state in the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Church became a national church (1833) and was transformed into the state’s ideological apparatus, reproducing the national ideology. It could be argued that the Orthodox Church of Greece is actually a state church, confirmed by the existing legal framework which defines relations between the two institutions and the legal status of the church.[3] According to Article 3 of the Greek Constitution, “the prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ”, while the Constitution starts with the preamble: “In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity”. It should also be mentioned that the second article of the first chapter of the law regarding the function of the Orthodox Church and its relations with the state (590/1977) states that “The Church of Greece cooperates with the state on subjects of common interest, for example, the Christian education of the youth; religious service in the army; the upholding of the institution of marriage and family; … the protection of the holy relics and ecclesiastical and Christian monuments; the establishment of new religious holidays; and seeks the protection of the state whenever our religion is insulted.” Such a provision also exemplifies the close and privileged relations of the Orthodox Church with the state. These relations became closer and more conspicuous under right-wing, conservative governments, but also during the rule of authoritarian regimes like the three dictatorships of the twentieth century.[4]

Authoritarian Regimes and Anti-Communism

During the Metaxas dictatorship (1936–41), relations between the state and the church were collaborative despite the regime’s intervention in the election of a new archbishop of Athens (who heads the church) in 1938. According to his diaries, Metaxas did not want to exercise authoritarian control over the church, but only “general surveillance” in a similar way to other state institutions. According to Metaxas, the church had fallen into a condition of decadence in the previous years and it was the intention of his regime to protect and empower it. This protection, however, was to take place under the “ideological umbrella” of the nation and the so-called ideology of the Third Hellenic Civilization.[5] The Orthodox Church, for its part, embraced the dictatorship immediately after its seizure of power, underlying the regime’s importance with regard to the alleged Communist threat. In its second year the church characterized the regime as a “blessing for Greece”, while it introduced, organised, and performed an annual religious service in the presence of the archbishop to honour the regime and Metaxas personally, and circulated encyclicals to dioceses around the country for that purpose.[6]

Already from the beginning of the twentieth century and during the interwar period the Orthodox Church turned against Communist, socialist, and leftist views and ideas. It was during that same period that the church became more important to the state as a mechanism against Communism and in the reproduction of the already established ideology of Helleno-Christianism or Helleno-Orthodoxy.[7]  This ideology combined ancient Greece, the Byzantine Empire, and modern Greece, arguing that the Greek nation was unique, blessed by God, characterized by historical, cultural, and biological continuity, and that a true Greek must be Orthodox—implying that religion and the nation were inseparable and that the true Greek identity necessarily consisted of both of these elements. The spreading of Communist and socialist views and ideas in Greek society sparked the reaction of both the Metaxas regime and the church. Metaxas imposed his dictatorial rule, arguing that Greece faced a clear Communist threat, and passed anti-Communist legislation according to which Communism was declared a “national enemy” and all Communists were to be exiled. The church’s discourse during this period was predominantly anti-Communist and followed the regime in some practices, initiating, for example, a “certificate of social and ideological convictions” for candidates for the priesthood,[8] openly stating that the confrontation with communism was the regime’s great achievement.[9]

The second authoritarian regime was the military dictatorship of 1967–74. During this period, the dictatorship intervened twice in the church’s organization in order to appoint new archbishops of Athens. The first one took place within six days of the coup with the selection of Ieronymos, and the second approximately a year before the fall of the regime with the installation of Seraphim, who remained in this position after the fall of the dictatorship, becoming the longest-serving holder of the post in the history of the church (1973–98). It should be noted that despite both incidents being immediate and offensive interventions in its administration, no strong, collective reactions on the part of the church were recorded, with the exception of some individual church members and, of course, the deposed archbishop, Ieronymos, in the second case.

Apart from these interventions, the relations of the two institutions during this period could be described as very close, collaborative, and smooth, with the church achieving some of its major goals. For example, during the Colonels’ dictatorship the church succeeded in having a new charter passed, based on its own suggestions and directions, and gained several new privileges, the most important of which was wage equalisation of the clergy with public servants.[10]   For both these developments, the church praised the dictator and the regime in public texts, encyclicals, and speeches and organized official ceremonies to celebrate them.[11] The good relations were demonstrated in the church’s concern for the dictator’s life after an assassination attempt on him by Alexandros Panagoulis in 1968, when the church, through an immediate encyclical, asked all bishops to offer a special doxology in local churches for his sake.[12]

The aforementioned ideological alliance with regard to the confrontation of Communism and the reproduction of Helleno-Orthodoxy continued during the 1967–74 dictatorship as well. Archbishop Ieronymos, for example, participated in some commemoration services organized by the junta celebrating the defeat of the Communists in the 1946–49 civil war. The bishop of Kastoria, Dorotheos, during his participation in the commemoration of the liberation of Macedonia, praised the military for the establishment of the dictatorship and for saving Greece from Communism,[13] while Bishop Alexandros of Filippoi, Neapolis, and Thasos in northern Greece argued in a public text that the army liberated the country from the miasma of atheistic and subversive Communism.[14] Furthermore, during the dictatorship many priests were punished by the Holy Synod for misconduct such as leftism, anti-national attitudes, and admission of Communist beliefs.[15]

Overall, a large number of bishops expressed positive and supportive views of the dictatorship, while after its fall most of them tried to present themselves as members of the opposition to the regime.[16] After the restoration of democracy, the church was actually the only institution that continued its work without being democratized and cleansed of its dictatorship-supporting elements. Apart from Archbishop Seraphim, there were other bishops who held office during the junta and continued to play a major role after 1974. Archbishop Christodoulos (1998–2008) served as the chief secretary of the Holy Synod under the dictatorship, and when, during his tenure as archbishop, this fact came to light in the media, his response was that he was not aware of any torture under the regime and that he was not involved in the political matters of the time.[17] Moreover, the recently retired bishop of Kalavrita, Amvrosios, was a chaplain in the religious service of the Greek gendarmerie, a fact that did not prevent him from being elected to his position in 1978.

The relations between the state and the church during the dictatorships of the twentieth century could be characterized as relations of collaboration and mutual appropriation. Secondary disputes or disagreements were not of high importance and did not disturb their cooperation. The church, and mostly the hierarchy, reproduced the socio-political and economic status quo with a twofold goal: on the one hand it sought to amplify the church’s status in Greek society, and on the other to conservatize and moralize society and the nation on a religious basis, with Communism and socialism being considered the main “enemies”. The regimes respected and protected the church as their ally, and the church, apart from some of its members, mainly among the lower levels of the clergy, did not react against these authoritarian regimes regardless of the cruelty exercised against the people, as long as the church’s privileges were not called into que

The Orthodox Church and the Extreme Right

The relations of the Orthodox Church with the extreme right in Greece is another very interesting chapter that offers plenty of material for analysis. The critical event for the church’s return to the extreme-right field after the fall of the junta in 1974 was the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the exercise of self-determination on the part of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and its claim to the name “Macedonia”. It was during this decade that the church articulated itself publicly through the organisation of large-scale demonstrations on this issue (1992).[18] Many years later, in 2018, when another attempt to reach a solution on the Macedonian issue was made, the church played the same central nationalist role, agitating the public against the agreement between the two countries, signed in Prespes in summer 2018. Again the church organized large-scale rallies with the involvement of many higher and lower clergy as well as monks, reacting vigorously against the convention with some of them considering it treason and a crime against the Greek people, while condemning the prime minister and the MPs who supported and voted for it as traitors.

One of the key figures in the extreme-right field was Archbishop Christodoulos (1998–2008). As has already been mentioned, during the Colonels’ dictatorship Christodoulos was the secretary of the Holy Synod, and he became a bishop just a few days before the fall of the regime. Yet his relations with extreme-right circles did not end there. Before his election as archbishop, he had been writing articles for an extreme-right newspaper, Eleftheros Kosmos, and had close relations with a pro-junta newspaper, Stochos. A year before his election, Christodoulos and 45 other bishops took part in a conference organised by Stochos, where he concluded his speech by saying that “resistance to all evil, all that is not Christian, not Orthodox, not Greek, is needed”, while he congratulated the newspaper’s publisher on his initiative.[19]

Based on all of the above, it should come as no surprise that church figures have supported extreme-right wing or right-wing populist parties like Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos), Independent Greeks (Anel) or Greek Solution. However, the relations of higher and lower clergy members with the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (GD) was an unexpected development. For those familiar with the neo-Nazi field, GD has never been a group with an Orthodox background and faith. A number of their older texts prove that it was more amenable to the ancient Greek religion, and in some cases pagan worship, than to the Orthodox Christian faith.[20]  Of course, after GD’s entry onto the political stage, and clearly for electoral reasons, this past was put aside. Through public statements and texts on the party’s website, it has sought to appear as the main protector of the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox tradition. The first and most important public attempt of this kind took place in autumn 2012, when GD took the lead along with circles in and around the church in the protests and violent episodes outside the Chytirio theatre, prompted by Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, which was accused of blasphemy. The performances were finally cancelled due to the constant rioting, but also because of threats against the cast of the show.[21] In this particular incident, the bishop of Piraeus, Seraphim, along with four GD MPs, filed a joint lawsuit against the play. The bishop himself argued that he filed the lawsuit on his own and that when the GD MPs learned about it, they came to offer their support. He ended by saying that fascists were those who were hostile towards actions that aimed at enforcing the laws of the state—that is, the prohibition of blasphemy—and therefore not the members of GD. Before April 2013 the same bishop never spoke out against GD or condemned its hate speech, racist practices, and violent attacks against immigrants. Then, after an interview in which certain GD MPs referred to their religious convictions, implying their sympathy for the ancient Greek religion, Seraphim addressed certain open questions to GD MPs regarding their religious convictions for the first time. The bishop then reacted more aggressively, accusing the party of following a pagan cult, even of Satanism. However, the fact remains that for more than a year the bishop did not react to the powerful presence of GD in Greek society and the parliament. In fact, he had meticulously avoided condemning it.

There are also other bishops who supported GD, one of them being the bishop of Konitsa, Andreas. At an event organized by far-right circles to commemorate the civil war victims of the Communists at Grammos and Vitsi, he spoke of GD in the warmest words as the “lads in black shirts, the good fighting lads”, and closed his speech with the wish that they would soon replace those black shirts with blue and white ones, meaning the colours of the Greek flag. Amvrosios, the same cleric who served as a chaplain in the gendarmerie under the 1967–74 dictatorship, also expressed himself very positively towards GD. In one statement, while referring to some of its members’ unfortunate actions, he called them a “sweet hope” for the country. It is also interesting that although Pavlos Fyssas’s murder in 2013 caused outrage among many in the hierarchy, Bishop Amvrosios, while condemning the crime, did not condemn GD as such, and even said that there were many serious persons within the party who should finally take on the role befitting them. Other bishops, like Anthimos of Thessaloniki and Nikolaos of Fthiotida, openly and gladly received the GD leader in their offices in 2017 and 2018, respectively, after the Fyssas assassination and during the trial of the GD leadership as a criminal organisation.[22]   Finally, a video surfaced showing the GD leader arguing that there were some bishops who actively supported GD, either by asking people to vote for the party or even by paying the rent for the its offices.[23]

There are, of course, also bishops who reacted against GD’s activity and tried to distance themselves from it, criticizing the party in any possible way. The interesting and worrying part, however, is that there are Orthodox bishops and priests who, ignoring or partly accepting GD’s neo-Nazi and racist background, stand by it and openly support it in speeches and sermons. Furthermore, the church as an institutional whole has not taken an official stance against GD, perhaps in order to maintain the balance within the Holy Synod. Although the church has openly positioned itself against Communism and leftist parties and organizations in the past, now it tries to maintain a neutral stance. This is one of the reasons why it is widely criticized.[24]  Even after Fyssas’s murder, the church did not explicitly condemn GD and only issued a general statement condemning violence as it did after the murder of two GD members, thus maintaining equal distances.[25]

Conclusion

As stated at the beginning of this article, authoritarianism might not be the most appropriate term in the study of the role of the Orthodox Church of Greece. Nevertheless, the main preliminary conclusion is that the Orthodox Church is predominantly closer to conservative, right-wing, extreme-right wing and authoritarian ideologies and practices, while historically collaboration with dictatorships was also possible and acceptable. It is not easy to explain such a position on the part of the church, as there seems to be no theological and biblical justification for it; rather, it is based on ideological and political reasoning.[26]  However, all the above shows that the relations between the Orthodox Church and authoritarianism and the extreme right is a wide and open field for further research and analysis.

Alexandros Sakellariou holds a PhD in sociology from Panteion University, Athens, on state-church relations in Greece during the three dictatorships of the twentieth century. He studied at the School of Philosophy of the University of Athens and obtained his MA from Panteion University. He teaches sociology at the Hellenic Open University in the School of Humanities and has extensive research experience in large-scale and smaller EU projects (FP7 & Horizon 2020) since 2011, working on young people’s socio-political engagement, well-being, the evaluation of innovative social policies, and radicalisation. He currently works as a senior researcher in the Dialogue about Radicalisation and Equality (DARE) project (2017–2021) and in two smaller EU projects. His research interests include the sociology of religion, sociology of atheism, religious communities in Greek society, church-state relations, Islamophobia, sociology of youth, right-wing extremism, radicalisation and qualitative methods. He is a board member of the Hellenic League for Human Rights.

Bibliography

Apostolate of the Church of Greece (1956), The synodical circulars, vol. 2, Athens: Apostoliki Diakonia (in Greek).

Apostolate of the Church of Greece (2000), The synodical circulars, vol. 4, Athens: Apostoliki Diakonia (in Greek).

Gazi, E. (2004), The second life of the three hierarchs: A genealogy of Helleno-Christianity, Athens: Nefeli (in Greek).

Ginis, G. (1981), Hierarchs, deacons of the junta, Athens: Vasdekis (in Greek).

Karagiannis, G. (2001), The church from the occupation to the civil war, Athens: Proskinio (in Greek).

Macedonia (1967), “The anniversary of the Macedonian fight initiation was celebrated with formality throughout northern Greece”, 14 October 1967 (in Greek).

Psallidas, G. (2016), Collaboration and disobedience: The policy of the Church of Greece leadership during the occupation (1941-1944), Athens: Estia (in Greek).

Psarras, D. (2012), The black book of Golden Dawn, Athens: Polis (in Greek).

Sakellariou, A. (2008), Dictatorships and the Orthodox Church in Greece during the twentieth century: political, economic and ideological relations under regimes of emergency, PhD thesis, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece (in Greek).

Sakellariou, A. (2013a), “Religion in Greek society: state, public or private?” in W. Hofstee and A. van der Kooij (eds.), Religion beyond its private role in modern society, Leiden-Boston: Brill, 153–66.

Sakellariou, A. (2013b), “On Blasphemy and other demons: The Greek Orthodox Church’s stance”, in D. Christopoulos (ed.), God has no need of an attorney: church, blasphemy and ‘Golden Dawn’, Athens: Nefeli, 39–61 (in Greek).

Sakellariou, A. (2014), “The Church of Greece”, in D. Christopoulos (ed.), The ‘deep state’ in contemporary Greece and the extreme right: the police, justice, the army, the church, Athens: Nissos, 279–318 (in Greek).

Stylianou, M. (2017), “The consolidation of Helleno-Christianism and the elimination of the cultural ‘other’ in Kavala during the dictatorship (1967–1974)”, presentation at the conference: Fifty years after: New approaches on the Colonels’ dictatorship, Institute of Historical Research/National Hellenic Research Foundation and Contemporary Social History Archives, Athens, 20-22 April 2017 (in Greek).

Vassilakis, Μ. (2006), The plague of God, Athens: Gnoseis (in Greek).

Zoumboulakis, S. (ed.) (2013), Neo-Nazi paganism and Orthodox Church, Athens: Artos Zois (in Greek).


[1] Authoritarianism is a quite controversial term, especially when it comes to the Orthodox Church or any other religious institution. From this perspective, it might be inaccurate or even erroneous to explicitly argue that the Orthodox Church is, in terms of ideology and type of organization, an authoritarian institution. It is, nevertheless, ultra-conservative, and in some cases fundamentalist—a term more appropriate for a religious institution—patriarchal and right-wing, with some extreme-right wing elements in terms of political-ideological preferences. It should also be noted that religion is something different from the church and in this paper the church is regarded as the institution and not the people belonging to the church, that is, its followers.

[2] It should be further stressed that presenting and discussing the church’s linkages with authoritarian regimes and the extreme right does not mean that all the bishops and priests feel close or support such views and ideologies. There are many exceptions of clergy, especially of the lower ranks, who hold open, liberal and democratic or even leftist views. However, the problem identified here is the official ecclesiastical stance and public discourse, which is primarily expressed through the Holy Synod and, in addition, the very regular silence or lack of open condemnation of authoritarian and extreme-right views and ideas.

[3] Sakellariou 2013a, 157–59.

[4] Sakellariou 2008. These regimes were of General Theodoros Pangalos (1925–26), General Ioannis Metaxas (1936–41), and the Colonels (1967–74). Due to the short duration of the Pangalos regime, this paper will briefly discuss the other two, better-known dictatorships.

[5] Sakellariou 2008, 352–66. The first two were the Ancient Greek and the Byzantine. Metaxas’s intention was to create the Third Hellenic Civilisation under his rule.

[6] Sakellariou 2008, 367–70.

[7] Gazi 2004, 62–78.

[8] Apostolate of the Church of Greece 1956, 208.

[9] Sakellariou 2008, 385. Two other critical aspects of the church’s relations with authoritarianism are the periods of the German occupation (1941–44) and the civil war (1946–49) (Karagiannis 2001, Psalidas 2016). In those periods, the church also primarily collaborated with the dominant political powers, but there were exceptions. There were many priests and bishops, such as Ioakeim of Kozani and Antonios of Ilia, who fought on the side of the Communists or supported them openly during the civil war and consequently were persecuted to the point of being excommunicated (Κaragiannis 2001, 77–89).

[10] Apart from the political and ideological aspects, financial relations were also crucial. The most important issue with regard to those relations was the financial status of the clergy, as already mentioned. Retaining its tax exemption was always one of the church’s priorities and it was never disputed by any of the regimes in question. Furthermore, state economic subvention, which the dictators never stopped providing, was indispensable to the church. This money was directed to the Holy Synod and other ecclesiastical organisations, including monasteries and institutions.

[11] Sakellariou 2008, 407–8.

[12] Apostolate of the Church of Greece 2000, 92.

[13]Macedonia 1967, 5, 7.

[14] Stylianou 2017.

[15]Apostolate of the Church of Greece 2000, 39, 269.

[16] Ginis 1981.

[17] Vassilakis 2006, 63.

[18] It should be mentioned that Golden Dawn also participated in these demonstrations and gained much support among the youth, as some of its later members openly admitted.

[19]Vassilakis 2006, 79–80.

[20] Psarras 2012, 211–32.

[21] Sakellariou 2013b, 48–50.

[22] In 2013, Anthimos criticised GD for its violent activism and in a private discussion the GD leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, referred to the prelate disrespectfully. However, as mentioned above, a few years later they met and exchanged warm and friendly words. Anthimos, like Christodoulos, also became a bishop just a few days before the fall of the Colonels’ regime.

[23] Of course, the bishops mentioned in the video all denied Michaloliakos’ claims.

[24]Ζoumboulakis 2013, 14–15.

[25] For more details on the church’s relations with the extreme right and its racist discourse, see Sakellariou 2014. For a summary in English, see https://www.rosalux.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/rightwing_a4_web.pdf (accessed 24 July 2019).

[26] From a Weberian perspective, it could be argued that between the Orthodox Church and authoritarian regimes, as well as extreme-right ideas, elective affinities can be found explaining their close relations. However, such a theoretical argument needs further elaboration and documentation.