Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) highlights the following article on the problems Catholics continue to face in contemporary Greece.
Catholics live civilly but without recognition in Orthodox Greece
By Jonathan Luxmoore
6 August 2007
Catholic News Service
PEROULADES, Greece (CNS) - The metallic chords of a bouzouki pound through the evening breeze, as two black-clad dancers spin to enthusiastic applause in a tavern in Greece.
Beyond plunging cliffs, the sun sinks slowly over the Ionian Sea, silhouetting the distant mountains of Albania. Along the nearby roadside, lined by palms and cyprus trees, crickets and fireflies flit through shadowy olive groves and cornfields.
When Nikos Aspiotis, a 30-year-old Orthodox, took over the tavern in this island village a year ago, he'd struggled for long hours to make the break at a local furniture factory. Today, with his English Catholic wife, Louise, he's paid off his debts and even found time to revive his dancing skills as the diners roll in through the summer months - showing how ordinary people, regardless of faith and ethnicity, can live well together in this staunchly Orthodox Mediterranean country.
But that is not always the case for the Catholic minority of Greece.
"We're not persecuted - we just don't have the same rights as the Orthodox majority," explained Archbishop Yannis Spiteris of Corfu, Zante and Kefalonia, the local ordinary. "The Greek government doesn't recognize our church, so officially we don't exist. Although I was born here on Corfu, I'm treated as a foreigner or at best a second-class citizen."
The Catholic Church in Greece has 200,000 Greek and foreign members but no formal contacts with the country's Orthodox Church, whose leaders claim the membership of 97 percent of the population of 10.4 million.
During a Vatican visit in December 2006, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens signed a joint declaration with the pope, pledging "fruitful collaboration" and a "dialogue in truth."
However, with some Orthodox criticizing all links with Catholics, such collaboration has yet to take place.
The Constitution of Greece, a European Union and NATO member-state, declares Orthodoxy the ''dominant religion" and requires public office holders to take an oath before an Orthodox priest. By contrast, the Catholic minority is refused legal recognition or access to public funding.
While Orthodox clergy are paid by the state, and church decrees are published in state newspapers, Catholic priests are denied public health coverage and can have trouble even gaining access to electricity and gas supplies.
In June 2006, Greek legislators voted to strip the Orthodox church of its right to be consulted over the construction of non-Orthodox places of worship, after calls for a review of its constitutional status.
Yet if solutions are being sought for minority faith problems, they have not filtered through to places like Corfu.
From his office above a clothes shop around the corner from the city of Corfu' s16th-century St. James Catholic Cathedral, Archbishop Spiteris gazed over the maze of bustling alleyways, or "kandounia," which run down through the ancient Jewish quarter, with its stark Holocaust memorial, to the island's port.
In 1943, the Catholic cathedral was damaged by German bombing along with its valuable artworks, while other Catholic properties were ruined in earthquakes or turned into municipal buildings.
The Corfu Archdiocese currently has seven priests, three brothers and eight nuns, while the registered membership of its three parishes is less than 4,000.
"Although local people are peaceful and law-abiding, they aren't very religious," the archbishop told Catholic News Service. "Although we've tried to renew enthusiasm for the Catholic faith, we depend on the energy and generosity of tourists to provide encouragement and reassurance."
Today, the neighboring islands of Zante and Kefalonia are home to a single Catholic church, while only two churches survive on the nearby mainland at Epirus. Although most Catholics receive first Communion and marry in church, many find it difficult to attend Mass.
Bearded Orthodox priests are everywhere, in their black cassocks and "kalimafi" hats, while Christian life is dominated by Orthodox churches such as the red-domed, 16th-century St. Spiridion's Church in Corfu's arcaded Liston district, or the ancient Pantocrator monastery, which stands amid classical temples above the Bay of Ipsos.
Corfu's Orthodox leader, Metropolitan Nectarios, has visited the Catholic Church's old people's home, while some Orthodox attended this year's centenary celebrations of the arrival of Franciscan sisters from Malta.
"Although we are polite ... we have no official relations - it's assumed being Greek means being Orthodox," said Archbishop Spiteris with a shrug of his shoulders. "Since the Second Vatican Council, even without being in communion, Catholics have recognized Orthodox sacraments and changed their attitudes.
"But the Orthodox simply haven't reciprocated. They still insist on living apart," he added.
As a member of the International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches, Archbishop Spiteris is hopeful contemporary ethical and cultural challenges will increase pressure for ecumenical cooperation. The commission is scheduled to meet in October in Ravenna, Italy, for the 10th plenary since its creation in 1979. After a six-year break, the 60-member commission reconvened in September to debate conciliarity and authority.
Archbishop Spiteris also counts on pressure from the EU, whose flags festoon the Town Hall outside his restored ocher-and-white cathedral, where Catholic services must compete with the noise of honking scooters and the call of cafe waiters.
This could take time, though.
In a 2006 survey by the Greek Public Opinion SA institute, a market research company in Athens, 57 percent of Greeks favored church-state separation, compared to 41 percent supporting the status quo.
However, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose New Democracy Party has been in power since 2004, has not supported parallel calls for civil oaths, or for the scrapping of a ban on proselytism which has landed Greece in trouble with the European Court of Justice.
Although some legislators have promised to back equal rights for the Catholic Church, there is little sign of the envisaged bill.
Corfu's member of Parliament sought local Catholic support, but has nothing to repay Catholic votes. Although the island now has its first Catholic mayor, he said he fears being labeled a "Vatican spy."
Archbishop Spiteris thinks both New Democracy and Greece's socialist opposition are afraid to risk conflict with the Orthodox Church.
In 2006, he sought EU funding for a monument on the site of a ruined Catholic monastery opposite his office, where the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes was hospitalized and slain Catholic troops were buried after routing a Turkish invasion fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Though the documentation was all completed, the Corfu authorities refused to endorse the application.
"We don't want privileges as a national church, just equal treatment and an end to discrimination," Archbishop Spiteris said. "Ordinary people have no trouble understanding this - it sometimes seems they have a more mature and judicious attitude than our own government and Orthodox Church."