Fierce battle rages for top job in Church of Greece

February 4, 2008

Funeral of Archbishop Christodoulos in Athens, 31 Jan. 2008/John KolesidisThe gloves are off in the election campaign for a new primate of the Greek Orthodox Church following the death of Archbishop Christodoulos last week. At least four metropolitan bishops are openly vying for the powerful Greek Church’s top post, some of them making their intentions known literally minutes after Christodoulos was buried last Thursday. The election is set for Feb. 7 and mud-slinging and accusations of blackmail are on the daily agenda.

A total of 78 members of the Holy Synod, the majority of whom were appointed by the late Archbishop Serafim (died 1998), are entitled to vote. Metropolitan Bishop Chrisostomos from the Peloponnese said in an open letter at the weekend he was a victim of “blackmail and mud-throwing” from supporters of Efstathios, Metropolitan Bishop of Sparta. Efstathios, one of two front-runners in the race, said: “I cannot believe any one of my supporters could be involved in something like that.”

What is at stake is the powerful influence of the Church over about 95 percent of Orthodox Greeks among the 10 million population, the Church’s extensive financial interests including major real estate developments and a mending of ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Church of Greece’s relations with the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians were damaged to the brink of collapse during Christodoulos’s tenure. While Christodoulos deftly used the media to raise his own profile, this exposure turned some supporters away in the later years of his 10-year reign. Critics said he used the media to interfere in government policy-making, accuse homosexuals of having a “handicap,” call Turks “barbarians” and attack the patriarchate. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek from Turkey, runs a tiny Orthodox community in what was once the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and needs outside support for his delicate balancing act with the Turkish government.

Archbishop Christodoulos (L) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (C) in Athens, 19 Oct 2000/stringerMany Greek Orthodox say it is time for the Church to move away from such a public profile and revert to its strictly religious role, minimising the loss of supporters. Efstathios and Metropolitan Bishop of Thebes Hieronymos are the two front-runners. Hieronymos had repeatedly clashed with Christodoulos and refused to back the Church in crucial large rallies to oppose the then Socialist government’s plans to remove a reference to religion from EU-approved IDs. He is considered a more progressive choice than Efstathios, a strict follower of religious protocol and an aide to the late archbishop. Efstathios was also in charge of the Church’s finances for the past six years.

The two other candidates seem to have weaker support from members of the Holy Synod. One is Anthimos, the Metropolitan Bishop of Thessaloniki, who is known for his fiery comments regarding Greek ethnicity and the alleged threat to its national identity from Balkan neighbours. The other is Ignatios, Metropolitan Bishop of Dimitriada, who is seen as the candidate most like Christodoulos.

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