Greece is seeing an unprecedented spate of terrorist attacks against churches. Among the churches that were hit, in one case during religious service, were the Athens Metropolitan Church, the Piraeus Metropolitan Church, and the Church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki. Greek media have described these attacks, the likes of which Greece has not seen even when the country was under occupation, as a “declaration of war against the Church of Greece.”
All of the bombs were defused in time and only one, at Agia Triada in Pireaus, caused minor damage. The organization “Conspiracy of the Nuclei of Fire – Commandos” along with “The Nihilist Faction” assumed responsibility for the attack and in a manifesto claimed “Religion is a mechanism of power that plays a particularly devious role in subjugating people.” Authorities in Greece are taking the attacks very seriously, especially in view of the Easter period during which thousands of the faithful will congregate at the country’s churches.
Something very dark is going on here. The Orthodox Church, which has served as the ark of nationalist — indeed racial — Hellenism since liberation from the Ottomans in the 19th century, is now under attack in Greece. This violent turn, which authorities are rightly taking “very seriously,” comes at a time when the Church, embroiled in one scandal after another in recent years, is fast losing the respect and trust of Greeks.
An opinion poll conducted in December for the newspaper Kathimerini asked people to rank their most trusted institutions. The Orthodox Church ranked only 22nd, dropping from 15th place in the previous poll. The pollsters surmised that the scandals involving shady land deals linked to the Vatopedi Monastery was a contributing factor. Apparently, not all Athonite monks spend their days toiling in the fields. (To see a depressing catalog of corruption by Greek hierarchs, skip to the bottom of this post.)
Let’s raise a question concerning matters closer to home: If Hellenism is falling out of favor in Greece, where does that leave the “Hellenism and Orthodoxy” project that is being promoted by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America? The GOA has raised $28 million so far to see this program through. No doubt many good things — scholarships, computer labs, Oratorical Festival awards — are funded with these dollars. But none of these projects have anything to do with Hellenism, if by that term we are referring to its theological expression, the marriage of Greek philosophy and Christian theology.
But that’s not what the GOA is advancing. It’s brand of Hellenism is a Greek import: the total identification of Christianity with Greek nationalism. This religious nationalism is comprehensible (even if you don’t accept it) if you’re Greek or raised in a Grecophone culture. You’re nurtured with this Hellenism as with mother’s milk; you get it in school, in the media, and in state ceremonial. And this nationalist Hellenism is a perfectly understandable — though thoroughly objectionable — thing for Greek-educated clergy. This also explains why some Greek hierarchs in the United States can without compunction, without so much as a blush of embarrassment, work so feverishly as lobbyists for the Greek state on earth-shaking issues like the problem of Macedonians calling their country Macedonia.
As one researcher concluded about nationalist Hellenism:
Within the ecclesiastical hierarchy as well as in Greek society and political culture, Orthodoxy continues to be granted national character and is still acknowledged as the defender and perpetuator of the nation. Metropolitan Meletios of Nicopolis exclaims, “It is a given that Greeks who forget the foundations of Orthodoxy isolate themselves from the Greek people — they cease, essentially, to be Greeks, whether we will it or not.” [ … ] In the words of former President Constantine Karamanlis, “The nation and Orthodoxy … have become in the Greek conscience virtually synonymous concepts, which together constitute our Helleno-Christian civilization.”
Christodoulos, the late Archbishop of Athens, was famous for his diatribes about the inseparable nature of Orthodoxy and Hellenism. In 2000, he organized mass demonstrations against a proposed EU measure that would have removed the religion field from national identity cards, saying it had been “put forward by neo-intellectuals who want to attack us like rabid dogs and tear at our flesh.” He later said Jews were behind the identity card directive. Christodoulos referred to Turks as “barbarians.” In 2003, he claimed that “history teaches us Europeans were always out to harm us. Long before the sack of Constantinople, Hellenism had been subjected to the horrible experience of the Franks, who wanted to achieve, by any means possible, its extinction.” The archbishop also helpfully pointed out that, “The Race [genos] owes its identity to the Church.”
In his “Stirring the Greek nation: political culture, irredentism and anti-Americanism in post-war Greece, 1945-1967” (Ashgate, 2007) Ioannis D. Stefanidis explained how Orthodoxy was “effectively harnessed” to the needs of the Greek nation state in the decades following independence. This movement looked both forward and backward in time:
… the Church, an ecumenical institution par excellence, was proclaimed ‘guardian of the spiritual and national unity.’ Its decreed confluence with the nation was systematically projected far back into the Ottoman past, glossing over the instrumental role of the Church in securing the allegiance of the sultan’s Christian subjects. The compromise between Church and state also enabled the conservative elements to settle old scores with the surviving advocates of Greek Enlightenment and enlist divine authority in combating undesirable Western influences. Henceforth, in public consciousness the centrality of the Orthodox faith to Greek national identity would never be in doubt.
For Orthodox Christians raised in America, this sort of religious nationalism, cloaked in Orthodox vestments, is simply incoherent, incomprehensible. It subverts the Gospel and is no doubt partly responsible for driving away our youth, who see nothing intelligible in it for their own lives. “Hellenism and Orthodoxy” can never take root in American culture and will fail spectacularly. Outside of a Greek cultural context, it comes across as “My Big Fat Greek Church” — an intellectually suspect ethnic sentiment. And all of the racial overtones referenced in it with terms like Omogeneia and genos go beyond incoherence. They smack of a master race mentality, something unworthy of the Church of Christ. (And if, by the way, you’re a member of the Hellenic master race, the highest compliment you can pay someone is that he reminds you of Alexander the Great who was, by the way, Greek and not Macedonian.)
In his letter to delegates at last summer’s Clergy-Laity Congress, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I invoked these same notes of nationalist, racial Hellenism. “You are both the heirs and envoys of the Holy Greek Orthodox Tradition and of a brilliant Civilization thousands of years old, a civilization that is deeply honored throughout the American Continent. [ … ] This is confirmed by … the progress that you present in every sector that brings honor to you both as the Omogeneia and as the Body of the Church, a cause for which your countrymen rejoice.” Countrymen? We are Americans here.
At the same conference, in his official letter to delegates, the Republic of Cyprus ambassador to the United States, Andreas Kakouris, declared that “during these critical times for sensitive issues for Hellenism, both the clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church and the laity are in the forefront, as spiritual messengers and protectors of the Hellenic identity, respectively, promoting not only religious matters but also our national issues.” In his letter, the president of Cyprus, Demetris Christofias, thanked Archbishop Demetrios for “promoting not only religious matters, but also the ideals and values of Hellenism and of our national issues.” The prime minister of Greece, Kostas Karamanlis, wrote that he relished the opportunity to “hail this Other Greece beyond the oceans, this Greece that is working, prospering, growing and keeping alive the Hellenic identity in the United States of America.”
Again at Clergy-Laity, Archbishop Demetrios announced that the GOA was “now … in a position to completely and intensely focus in promoting the Orthodox Faith and in cultivating the universal human values of Hellenism, operative today in all civilized societies and countries.” No, not by a long shot. Americans won’t buy it, and even Greeks are turning away from it.
In a 1983 essay, “The Church: A Time for Transition” (a perpetual state for the Orthodox, it seems), Metropolitan Kallistos Ware described the problem with Greek Orthodox nationalism. “The future vocation of the Greek Church is to be not an ethnic body but a communion of faith and sacraments, a spiritual family to which men and women belong, not because of the accident of birth, but in consequence of personal conversion and self-dedication. Let the motto of the Church in the 1980s be, not Ekklisia kai Ethnos, ‘Church and Nation.’ Still less Ellas Ellinon Christianon, ‘a Greece of Greek Christians,’ but mia zosa kai elefthera Ekklisia, ‘a Church that is alive and free.’”
Alive and free. Imagine that.
Background on the Greek church scandals:
Vatopedi is only the most recent. There was this in 2005:
Greece’s top Orthodox clerics scrambled this week to salvage the church’s credibility as scandal after scandal has emerged with clergymen implicated in drug dealing, antiquities theft, trial rigging and lewd conduct.
On Friday, the Athens bishop was suspended for six months as an investigation proceeded into accusations that he embezzled $2.9 million and tried to rig a court case in which he was fighting for control of a monastery.
The suspension was just one of the latest chapters in a tale of corruption that has scandalized all of Greece, a country where 97 percent of the people belong to the Greek Orthodox Church and the government enforces church law and pays priests’ salaries.
The suspension, of Metropolitan Panteleimon of the Attica region, which includes Athens, was announced live on television, a day after church leaders appealed to the faithful to report improprieties and help root out corruption and strengthen the institution. The punishment was the harshest ordered against a high church official in two decades.
On Thursday, the Holy Synod of church leaders gave another bishop a week to answer allegations made by his predecessor that he was arrested last year during a drug bust in a “bar of ill-repute” in central Greece.
Greeks have watched dumbfounded as allegations of their priesthood’s dissolute lifestyle have unfolded on their television screens.
Snatched tape-recordings, aired nightly, have revealed rampant homosexuality among senior clerics who, unlike ordinary priests, are under oaths of chastity.
The alleged debauchery has not been limited to monastic cells. Last week, claims emerged that Metropolitan Theoklitos of Thessaly, a leading churchman, had been arrested on suspicion of drug dealing in a police raid on a notorious nightclub in Athens.
The priest was reportedly rounded up with Seraphim Koulousousas, the archbishop’s former private secretary, also implicated in another “unholy affair” involving gay sex with a bishop.
[ … ]
Under public pressure from a media determined to expose the shenanigans, the church is investigating four more clerics, including a 91-year-old metropolitan bishop who was captured on camera cavorting in the nude with a young woman. The picture was splashed across the front page of the mass-selling Avriani.
Once in Cyprus, a whispering campaign against Athanassios came to a head when he accused a subordinate of fathering two children in violation of his strict vows of celibacy. The subordinate, reportedly encouraged by the Paphos bishop, responded by openly accusing his superior of being gay.
The Church has questioned the allegations. But overcoming initial reluctance, notably from the archbishop, Athanassios now has to testify to a board of inquiry into accusations that he has had homosexual affairs with at least two men.
And, one more:
Four years after his appointment to the most sensitive Christian office in the Middle East, the Greek cleric is embroiled in a shady land-dealing scandal that threatens to devastate the local church and poison its relations with the wider Palestinian population.
This week, visiting the Holy Sepulchre in preparation for Easter, Patriarch Irineos felt he needed an Israeli police escort. There are calls for his dismissal.