Greece in revolt as scandals sweep the Orthodox church

Author: Helena Smith
Date Published: 03/20/2005

Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, is facing trying times. Last week, Greece’s newly inaugurated President, Karolos Papoulias, spurned tradition by refusing to kiss him.

Days earlier, his closest confidant, Theoklitos, the Bishop of Thessaliotis, resigned amid accusations of homosexuality and drug dealing. And yesterday, after weeks of calls for his own withdrawal, the whiff of scandal came closer still – ensnaring his mentor, Metropolitan Bishop Kallinikos, with yet more claims of sexual impropriety. Growing numbers of the faithful have begun to wonder whether their fiery leader will survive ‘Holygate’.

‘There is no doubt that this crisis has blackened the face of the church,’ said the conservative daily Kathimerini. ‘Those who thought that the corruption scandals and shady intrigue bedevilling it were just a passing phase have been forced to reconsider.’

The revelations are mind-boggling. Almost daily, men once revered as paragons of virtue have been exposed as lascivious money-grabbers. Recorded conversations of eminent clerics engaging in ‘love talk’ have been broadcast on television, secret bank accounts revealed, and malfeasance unearthed, with priests emerging as central players in activities as disparate as trial-fixing, antiquities smuggling and election rigging. Highlighting a raft of lurid sexual claims, one newspaper splashed what was purported to be a 91-year-old priest in bed with a woman across its front page.

‘In many ways, the Greek Orthodox Church has been revealed for what it is: a completely amoral and unethical multinational company,’ said Nikos Dimou, author of the best-selling book The Misery of Being Greek .

At first, the archbishop reacted by pledging a wide-ranging ‘self-catharsis’ to clean up the church’s sullied image. Addressing an extraordinary meeting of the Holy Synod, the institution’s governing body of bishops, he conceded that reforms were clearly necessary to counter ‘our apparent lust and greed’.

But despite the measures, the drama refused to die down. Forced to admit his own links with a priest imprisoned on charges of stealing icons and manipulating court judgments, the 66-year-old archbishop was quickly drawn into the scandal. Subsequent revelations of his connections with Apostolos Vavilis, a convicted drugs smuggler whom he endorsed in a glowing letter of recommendation, sparked protest from within his own ranks.

‘There is no other solution … the only thing left for the archbishop to do is resign,’ insisted Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, a long-time rival.

Previously, Christodoulos had denied he ever meeting Vavilis, whom he is accused of employing to ensure that Patriarch Eirinaios of Jerusalem was elected to his post in 2001.

As the biggest landowner in the Middle East – the Israeli parliament and presidential palace are built on plots owned by the Orthodox patriarchate – insiders say the archbishop was keen to see his confidant win the seat.

Vavilis has since admitted circulating homoerotic pictures of Eirinaios’s main opponent, a dirty trick that ensured his defeat. In another embarrassing step, Eirinaios conceded that Christodoulos had sent the wanted drugs smuggler to lobby for him.

Inevitably, the archbishop’s popularity has been badly dented. Parish priests have added their voices to the growing chorus of demands that he step down. ‘There are sacrifices that must be made,’ said Efstathios Kollas, who heads the union of priests. ‘The archbishop, if he loves the church, must make this sacrifice.’

But Christodoulos has vehemently refused to resign. He is, he says, ‘determined to lead the effort to clean up the church’.

As the allegations have mounted, so have calls for a separation of church and state. Priests in Greece are paid by the government.

With the Holy Synod due to launch an inquiry into claims that the archbishop’s mentor, Bishop Kallinikos, made sexual overtures to a male cantor, and the net closing on Vavilis, those calls are bound to get louder. ‘Greeks are not particularly religious,’ said Dimou. ‘But the church is like the Greek flag, a symbol of their identity.’