Friday, 31 August 2001

For whom the church polls

The Church of Greece must forge a path to heaven through earthly achievements. Faith without works is dead

ONE OF the first lessons a politician should learn is never to cross the church on a matter of symbolism. For here is an institution that has elevated a Roman torturing device to a symbol of absolution for the world's sins. Before this symbol millions of people unveil their most tender feelings, or butcher an enemy.

Even if Greeks do not attend church every Sunday, the application of the church's symbolic power is daily. We call upon it to bless governments, boats, businesses and battalions.

In the seemingly perfunctory act of revamping state identity cards to exclude religious affiliation, the government invoked the wrath of an institution that knows it is losing a national monopoly, as church and state are wrenched apart.

The divorce is inevitable as Europe unites to encompass an array of faiths, races and languages. It must enforce rules that are acultural. The government could arguably have avoided the identity card crisis by simply waiting for a Euro-card to come into effect. But it wanted to show good marks in Euro-class by preparing the ground at the expense of what it thought would be an easy, non-political target. How wrong it was.

The awesome political weapon religious leaders hold is that they are not politicians. They invoke authorities even higher than the people: the people's ancestors, traditions and raison d'etre. Thus, Archbishop Christodoulos has fully immersed the church in an exercise that is entirely political in nature (a war against the ruling socialists with support from the conservatives) while declaring that the church "rejects any involvement in political and state activity".

Christodoulos must know that his chances of forcing a referendum on the ID cards are practically nil. (Party politics and referenda are mutually exclusive; ancient Athenians voted on individual issues, while we elect factions to keep the issues out of our hair). In the process, he has proven his ability to muster the support of millions of people against the government. The archbishop can also wield the authority of the church to blacken the government's image. The church is speaking out, Christodoulos said in a speech broadcast nationwide on August 28, because it is "the permanent and everlasting cohesive factor of this nation". It stands for the "preservation of our paternal heritage" and upholds Christian and democratic values of "individuality, choice and tolerance".

The implication, of course, is that those who stand in the church's way represent the opposites of these things.

Thus the government is an unChristian, unpatriotic and unaccountable star chamber of anaemic Brussels yesmen. The church is the honest, passionate and patriotic vessel of the nation's vital character through the ages ­ something approximating the haemoglobin of the Greeks. The point of this battle is not so much to reverse the government's fait accompli on ID cards. It is to warn politicians that they have much to lose by taking on the church in the materially important battles that lie ahead.

Europe's secularisation will deeply impact the church's pocket and power: Striking the country's priests off the government payroll, making civil marriage mandatory rather than alternative (recently mooted by Justice Minister Stathopoulos) and later perhaps applying the same to christenings and funerals are the next logical steps on the agenda. They will aim to transform the church from a cultural norm (Greeks are confirmed at baptism) to a consumer choice.

Beyond them lies the most controversial issue - land. The church is estimated to possess more than 300,000 acres of real estate in Greece. It claims that it has been cheated of much of this by individuals and the government, and Christodoulos hinted earlier this year that he wants the land back.

The trouble is that this war against secularisation brings the church into politics, a practice that yields dubious results at best.

Witness the church-fuelled delirium over the name "Macedonia" in 1992, which led to the marginalisation of the Greek point of view in international diplomatic circles and a Waterloo for the Mitsotakis government.

Witness the Christian Coalition's rendering of the Republican Party unelectable in the US throughout the 1990s, because it hijacked the party's political agenda with issues such as abortion, and did so in a hysterical and dogmatic way.

Witness the disastrous participation of Judaic parties in Benjamin Netanyahu's short-lived government, which kept the Israeli prime minister anchored to a religious-prophetic agenda of settling the Holy Land and helped lead to today's renewed intifada.

The ID crisis represents the ongoing battle between those who feel that what makes us Greek must be preserved at all costs, and those who feel that what keeps us poor must be eradicated at all costs. If Europe wants secular identity cards, the latter say, that is what we must have.

But this is a false dilemma. Countries can no more progress without prosperity than they can without identity. Greeks cannot be asked to leave behind either one. Church and state must stop pulling them in opposite directions, or they will create the kind of identity crisis we see in Turkey: a zealously secular state mechanism that feels threatened by a mild brand of Islam shared by 90 percent of its voters.

In the secular environment, that religion transmogrified into a political party, forcing the National Security Council controlled by the generals to prosecute it out of government in 1997, making a mockery of secular democracy in the process. The same has happened in the secular United States, where religious groups now assume political tactics, actively lobbying congressmen in Washington. The point is that if you try to stamp out religion, it will come back to haunt you in another guise.

So what should be the future position of the church in a secular Europe? The church should strengthen its social role, where it has been severely negligent ­ taking care of the poor and elderly, building and running hospitals and schools, setting aside some of its vast tracts of land for the protection of the environment. These are areas where Europe's governments will be facing constant crises in the coming decades.

The Church of Greece should continue to proselytise through the beauty of its ancient ceremony and the Gospels, but it must also forge a path to heaven through earthly achievements. Faith without works is dead.