During a crisis that has already created widespread poverty, priests say they are serving the needs of hard-hit citizens whose government has failed them. But critics say that the church’s tax breaks and its tangled relationship with the political leadership here are starving the country of revenue at a moment when time and money are running short.
Greece is headed for parliamentary elections on June 17 that could determine its future on the shared euro currency, with a choice between leaders who favor the $163 billion bailout that is saving the country from bankruptcy and those who oppose the painful measures that come as a condition of the rescue. If voters reject the bailout, the government could be out of money by the end of August, with government employees short of their paychecks.
Those would include the more than 10,000 priests on state payrolls, who cost taxpayers $238 million a year. Tax breaks on the church’s landholdings keep even more money away from government coffers at a time when every euro counts, critics say.
Until 2010, even income from commercial properties that the church rented to businesses was shielded from taxation, a status that ended when former prime minister George Papandreou decided he could no longer be so generous. But a discussion about reducing the government contribution to black-robed priests’ pay has gone nowhere, a reflection of the political sensitivity of the topic in a country where 98 percent of the population is Orthodox.
“The church is very much intertwined with the government and with earthly power,” said Stefanos Manos, a former finance minister. “The church plays a role in Greece in politics and a lot of fields. Politicians do not want to go against it.”
At times the church has been too involved in government life, critics say, pointing to a series of corruption scandals that have dogged church leaders in recent years. Those include a thousand-year-old monastery’s land swap with the Greek government that cost taxpayers an estimated $130 million and contributed to the downfall of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis in 2009. Abbots and priests have cycled in and out of prison in connection with the land deals.
Church leaders say they are simply trying to raise funds to pay for ministries that are needed now more than ever. A monastery that claims a large chunk of Mount Penteli, outside of Athens, wants to build a major solar-power field there, another project that would bring in cash. The church says its priests are distributing more than 10,000 meals a day in Athens alone, stepping in to help while the government no longer has the money to do it itself.