FaithWorld

Greek Orthodox bishop denounces new taxes on church as hostile

greek priests

Greek Orthodox priests in Athens 31 Jan 2008/Yiorgos Karahalis

By Renee Maltezou

ATHENS – A senior cleric has accused Greece’s socialist government of being hostile to the Orthodox Church  for imposing taxes on it as part of a drive to tame a budget crisis that has shaken global markets.

Greece, where about 90 percent of the 11 million-strong population are Christian Orthodox, will tax bequests and revenues from church property as it seeks to tackle a 300 billion euro ($409.9 billion) debt pile.

In a country where a bishop sits on the board of the biggest bank and the top cleric swears in the government, many on the streets of Athens felt the church should do its bit given the sacrifices they are making.

“It was about time the Church paid. It’s fair,” said Christina Alexiadou, 55, an accountant and frequent church-goer. “It can’t be that only ordinary people pay for everything.”

The Church of Greece, one of the country’s biggest owners of prime real estate, has until now been largely exempt from taxes even though the state pays priests’ salaries.

Orthodox renew hope Turkey will re-open historic seminary

Empty classroom at the Orthodox Halki seminary, Sept. 2006The silent halls and empty classrooms tended by elderly priests at a former Greek Orthodox seminary on an island off the Istanbul coast belie the crucible the school has become in Muslim Turkey’s quest to join the European Union.

The EU has said re-opening Halki seminary, a centre of Orthodox scholarship for more than a century until Turkey closed it down in 1971, is crucial if Ankara is to prove a commitment to human rights and pluralism and advance its membership bid. (Photo: Halki seminary classroom, 18 Sept 2006/Tom Heneghan)

The pro-Islamist government, despite introducing other sweeping reforms to bring Turkey closer to EU membership, has thus far refused to re-open the 165-year-old school located on a pretty wooded isle called Heybeliada in the Sea of Marmara.

Wall overshadows Muslim- Christian relations in West Bank

palestinians-at-damascus-gateThe Palestinian issue has figured prominently over the past week in stories with a religion angle. Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel, which ended on Friday, was the most prominent. While visiting Bethlehem, he called Israel’s barrier in the West Bank one of the saddest sights” on his whole tour. Early this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time. Netanyahu said the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks while Obama said Jewish settlements in the West Bank have to be stopped.” On Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said they hoped to visit Gaza in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed there in Israel’s blockade of the area governed by the Islamist movement Hamas. (Photo: Palestinian protesters wave flags at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, 21 May 2009/Amir Cohen)

In almost every speech he made, Pope Benedict pleaded for more interfaith contacts and cooperation as a way to move forward towards peace. With the Israeli-Palestinian issue so polarised, the question of promoting understanding among the people of the Holy Land often seems to be reduced mostly to a Jewish-Muslim issue. The tiny Christian minority in the local population often seems to be standing on the sidelines.

But within the occupied West Bank, there are numerous examples of religious coexistence between the Muslim and Christian populations. The West Bank village of Aboud, which I described in a feature you can read here, is a case in point. Father Firas Aridah, head of the local Catholic parish, points to the joint celebration by Muslims and Christians of their respective religious holidays. The Catholic school he operates with a majority of Muslim students doesn’t impose the church’s beliefs on the student body but teaches them their own faiths.

Impressions from Gaza: minority Christians and Hamas

gaza-sistersWhen Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem, in the West Bank, last week, he was less than 100 km (60 miles) away from Gaza. But for the 4,000 Christians in this crowded Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea , he might as well have been on the moon. Like nearly all Gazans, they are barred from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli restrictions. An Israeli embargo on supplying many essential goods to them has left the impoverished area unable to repair buildings destroyed or damaged by an Israeli offensive in January. Added to all that, the tiny Christian minority has been living since June 2007 under the Islamist rule of Hamas. Faced with conditions like that, attending a papal mass is a luxury few would even dream of. (Photos: Sunday Mass at Holy Family Church, Gaza, 17 May 2009/Suhaib Salem)

Behind the altar at Holy Family Church in Gaza, paintings depict Gospel scenes that all took place within a few hours’ drive. There’s the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River and the Last Supper in Jerusalem — all places that Benedict visited. But the only place the Gazan Catholic faithful at Sunday Mass here could hope to visit anytime soon would be the route of the Flight to Egypt. Joseph and Mary would probably have brought Jesus through the Gaza region while fleeing Herod’s plan to kill all newborn boys in Bethlehem. The rest are all unreachable for them.

gaza-church-pews-2I made a quick visit to the Christian community in Gaza on Sunday to gauge the mood following the pope’s visit to Israel and the West Bank. My colleague and I had only a few hours until the border closed in mid-afternoon, so there was only enough time for some impressions and short conversations at the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and with a Hamas government minister.

Jordan amasses evidence for claiming Jesus baptism site

bethany-pool-2 (Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)

In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.

bethany-flagFor about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river’s east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John’s Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area’s use as a pilgrimage site. (Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)

Pope John Paul’s visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to have the same concern — he’s coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.

A religion board game – satire or scandal?

How much fun — really — can you make of religion?  A U.S. marketer of board games may find out with ”Playing Gods” which it calls “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.” It had its European premier this week at the London Toy Fair and will make a U.S. debut at the New York Toy Fair in February.

Ben Radford, head of the company that put the game together, said in a news release it is designed for two to five players who act as “gods” and …

“Try try to take over the world and make everyone on Earth worship him or her. As a god, you can try to convert other gods’ followers, promising them things like Afterlife, Prosperity, and Miracles. Or you can kill them off with plagues, locusts, earthquakes, floods, and other Acts of Gods.

Religious rumble slide show

OK, it happened a few days ago, but I still can’t get over that “Christian” fist fight at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem between the Greek Orthodox and Armenians. Our photo desk has put together a slide show of Ammar Awad’s shots from the scene — click here to see it.

Greek scandal as monastery linked to shady land deals

A Greek Orthodox monk at Mount Athos, 11 May 1999/Yiorgos KarahalisThe all-male Greek Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos, a favourite stop for top Greek and foreign dignitaries such as Prince Charles but completely close to women, has long been a haven for those forsaking earthly pleasures to seek God.

You can imagine the shock, then, when Greeks learned that one of its main monasteries, the Vatopedi monastery dating back to the late 10th century, was conducting suspect land-swap deals with the Greek state.

According to Greek media, Vatopedi had nearly clinched a deal to exchange Vistonida Lake in northern Greece — which it claimed through 1,000-year-old documents — for  prime real estate elsewhere in Greece. The deal reportedly would have meant a substantial loss to the state.

Priestly turf wars in the Holy Land

Loving thy neighbour is not always easy, especially, it seems, when it comes to the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Worshipper at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 8 2007

Christian factions have squabbled for years over who controls which parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s divided Old City.

Sometimes they even come to blows.

Priests and worshippers at an Orthodox Palm Sunday celebration on April 20 ended up brawling after Armenian clerics apparently kicked a Greek Orthodox priest out of a shrine at the church — one of Christianity’s holiest.

Fierce battle rages for top job in Church of Greece

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.