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The Orthodox Church of Greece

Greece’s constitution opens with an invocation to the Holy Trinity and identifies the Orthodox Church of Greece as the “prevailing” faith community of the nation. This provision acknowledges the role of the church in the formation of the modern Greek state and its influence among the republic’s 11 million people, more than 96 percent of whom profess membership in the church.

Universal calls for the elimination of this provision have intensified, especially since Greece joined the European Union in 1981. The statute has remained unaltered, however, despite two emendations since 1975.

While Orthodox Christianity assisted at the birth of modern Greece and has parented it for nearly two centuries, the Greek state actually created the Orthodox Church of Greece, thereby creating inherent churchstate issues.

Origins. Christianity took root in the Greek- speaking world as the Roman Empire consolidated its hold on Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Romans imposed their own code of law, but permitted the vanquished Greeks a large degree of autonomy, eventually adopting the Greek culture as their own. “Captive Greece,” wrote the Roman poet Horace, “took captive her savage conqueror.”

The Apostle Paul’s work among the Athenians, Colossians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians and Thessalonians is well documented. Whether in the Roman provinces of Achaea, Epirus and Macedonia or in the diaspora of greater Greece, these Greek-speaking Christians formed urban communities that evolved into important centers of the Christian faith.

Paul’s churches embraced the culture of the Hellenistic world, which provided the philosophical and theological vocabulary necessary to help them define and interpret the teachings of Jesus Christ. As the church grew throughout the empire, a distinctly Greek school of theology developed alongside a Syriac school that was dominant among learned Semitic Christians.

Often understood as cosmopolitan, the Greek school eventually asserted its preeminence when the Roman emperor, Constantine I, moved his government east, from Rome to the small Greek port of Byzantion on the Bosporus in the year 330.

Officially christened “New Rome,” the imperial capital of Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) took on a distinct Christian identity after Theodosius I established Christianity as the state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantium) in 394. And though the inhabitants of Constantinople would proudly retain their Roman identity for more than 1,000 years, they would also understand themselves to be the heirs of the ancient Greeks.

While the power of old Rome waned, Byzantium grew despite violent religious divisions and incursions by Goths, Bulgars, Huns, Persians, Arabs and Slavs.

The Christians of Greece, citizens of Byzantium, gravitated to the culture, church and rites of its capital city, Constantinople, even though they were under the Church of Rome until the eighth century.

The liturgical practices employed by the Greeks — which originated in the Syrian city of Antioch but, after the sixth century, matured in Constantinople’s Great Church of the Haghia Sophia — are now commonly referred to as Byzantine.

Byzantine Greece. After the Arabs seized Alexandria in 641, the Greek city of Thessalonica assumed cultural, ecclesiastical, economic and political prominence second only to Constantinople. Inspired by works in the capital, artisans embellished Thessalonica’s churches of St. Dimitrios and Haghia Sophia with mosaics, marble, richly embroidered tapestries, silks and gem-encrusted liturgical objects. Ennobled with the title of “co-queen” by emperors and chroniclers alike, Thessalonica’s influence spread beyond the frontier. Two sons of the city, Cyril and Methodius, were charged by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople to work among their pagan neighbors to the north, the Slavs. They created a Slavonic alphabet and translated Scripture into Slavonic. Their ministry eventually won the Eastern Slavs to Christianity in its Byzantine form.

But it is in Greece’s medieval monasteries — Mount Athos, Hosios Lucas, Nea Moni and Daphni — where the richest concentration of Greece’s Byzantine legacy survives. Founded during the empire’s zenith (10th to 12th centuries), the churches, refectories and treasuries of these monasteries house some of the greatest works of Byzantium. Long after the empire collapsed, monks kept Byzantium alive, commemorating its emperors and empresses, saints and scholars, iconographers and philosophers in their liturgies and prayers.

Commerce, crisis and conflict. Greece’s position in Byzantium grew in the 11th century as the Seljuk Turks overran Anatolia, which had once provided the empire with grain, soldiers and tax revenue. Not since pre-Christian Rome had the heartland of the Greek world prospered, providing markets with grain, oil and wine while filling the coffers of the imperial treasury with revenue. But this financial success, coupled with dynastic chaos in Constantinople, eventually proved Byzantine Greece’s downfall.

Relations between Byzantium’s emperors and a resuscitated Latin Europe had never been strong. In 800, the papal coronation of Charlemagne as Imperator Augustus on Christmas incensed the Byzantines, whose emperors maintained their Roman inheritance and identity, despite their Greek culture and language. Relations eroded as the Latin “Holy Roman Emperors,” buttressed by the popes, challenged Byzantine political primacy and hegemony in southern Italy.

A number of temporary schisms between the churches of Constantinople and Rome exacerbated relations. But the Great Schism of 1054, in which pope and ecumenical patriarch excommunicated each other, definitively severed full communion between the churches, thus drawing a faith-line through the ancient Roman prefecture of Illyricum, of which Greece was a part.

Using the schism as justification, the Normans of Sicily sacked Thessalonica in 1185. Bands of Latin knights on crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims — led by leaders of the Holy Roman Empire and bankrolled by the rising merchant city-states of the Italian peninsula — threatened other Byzantine cities with the same. In 1204, they instead stormed the greatest prize of all, Constantinople, looting its palaces and churches, even desecrating the Great Church of the Haghia Sophia.

Byzantium collapsed in the confusion. City states — some ruled by exiled members of the Byzantine imperial family, others by Latin kings — vied for control of commerce and territory. The Latin plunder and occupation of Byzantium deepened the schism between the Orthodox East and the Latin Catholic West.

The Latin occupation of Constantinople ended in 1261 when the head of a Byzantine successor state in Nicea, Michael Palaeologos, entered the city after its capture by forces loyal to him. Crowned Emperor Michael VIII in a restored Haghia Sophia by the ecumenical patriarch, the emperor focused on reclaiming Byzantine lands in Europe, especially Greece, to which the House of Palaeologos maintained a special affinity.

Ottoman Greece. The Palaeologoi could not resurrect the power and wealth of a restored Byzantium. Despite a renaissance in the arts, learning and spirituality, the empire declined economically and politically. Genoese, Pisan and Venetian bankers purchased properties and privileges from cash-poor emperors while the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantine Greek lands. Eventually, only a few fortified castles in Greece and the city of Constantinople flew the standard of the Palaeologoi. They too fell. On 29 May 1453, Emperor Constantine XI died defending Constantinople from an Ottoman assault.

Soon after the city’s fall, the Ottoman sultan recognized the ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Church as leader of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek nation, or millet. Charged with representing the Ottoman Greek community (that is, keeping it in line), the ecumenical patriarch exercised spiritual and temporal leadership. Assuming the trappings of the Palaeologoi dynasty (the use of the double-headed eagle and the personal arms of the emperors), the patriarchs attempted to preserve the Greek and Orthodox identities of their people, who increasingly left the cities for the mountains, far from the reach of the Ottoman tax collector.

Those Greeks who remained in Constantinople’s Phanar district, however, exercised great influence on the court of the sultans, especially after the 17th century. Thanks to their commercial success, they embellished churches throughout the Orthodox world, including Mount Athos and the patriarchal church of St. George. More importantly, their acumen as Ottoman diplomats in the West brought them into contact with Western concepts of nationalism, which were stirred by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.

Independent state. In 1814, a group of Phanariot Greeks formed a secret society in the port of Odessa. “Philiki Eteria,” or Company of Friends, sought to establish an independent Greek state and enlisted the covert support of the Russian tsar, who saw himself as the protector of the Orthodox world.

Though structured similarly to the Free Masons, Philiki Eteria included Orthodox priests and bishops, including the Metropolitan of Patras, Germanos. This secret company occasionally challenged Ottoman authority, but it was Germanos, who, according to tradition, triggered a national uprising by blessing the blue and white flag of Greek independence on 25 March 1821.

Greek gains were immediate, particularly in the Peloponnese (the old Roman province of Achaea), where the Ottoman response was languid. In Constantinople, however, the sultan’s reaction was quick. After celebrating the Divine Liturgy on Easter Sunday (10 April 1821), Gregory V, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, was arrested and hanged from the gate of the patriarchate, which to this day remains sealed in his memory.

The Greek War of Independence, which would inspire similar national uprisings throughout the Balkans and central Europe, dragged on violently; massacres claimed Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks, civilians and clergy.

France, Great Britain and Russia eventually intervened, securing an independent Greek nation in 1832, albeit one that embraced a minority of the Greek community living in the Ottoman Empire. Bringing together the empire’s Greeks into one Greek nation — the “Great Idea” — would inspire Greek nationalism and dominate government and ecclesiastical policy for more than a century, ending with the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923, which tragically destroyed some of the oldest Greek communities in Anatolia.

Independent church. Greece’s “godfathers” — France, Great Britain and Russia — insisted on a monarchical form of government for the nascent Greek state, importing a Bavarian minor as king in 1832.

The king’s government declined to submit its citizens spiritually to the ecumenical patriarch, who remained the head of the Greek nation in the Ottoman Empire. In 1833, they declared the Orthodox Church of Greece autocephalous and placed the church under the authority of a permanent five-member episcopal synod. King Otto, who refused to leave the Catholic Church of his birth, was declared head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, which infuriated the Russian government and Greece’s Orthodox hierarchy.

In 1850, the ecumenical patriarch recognized the autocephaly of the Greek Church, specifying in a patriarchal tomos that the archbishop of Athens should be the permanent head of the synod of bishops. Today, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece presides over a permanent synod of bishops, which includes 12 metropolitan bishops.

As the Greek kingdom took more territory from the Ottomans and later the Bulgarians, it assimilated substantial Orthodox communities. Those Orthodox living in the “new lands” conquered from Turkey in 1912 remained directly under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate until 1928, when they were placed “provisionally” under the administration of the church of Greece.

Today, the Orthodox Church of Greece is organized into 81 eparchies; 30 are located in northern Greece and the major islands in the northern Aegean Sea — the new lands — and retain certain privileges, such as the commemoration of the ecumenical patriarch during the Divine Liturgy. The ecumenical patriarchate retains direct jurisdiction over eparchies in Crete and the Dodecanese islands and the monastic republic of Mount Athos.

A century of change. The National Schism, which in the World War I era pitted Greek liberals against Greek royalists, split the nation for generations, nurturing xenophobic fears and hatred for change and the unknown. As an organ of the state, the church during this period was marked by catatonia, as its members, including members of the episcopacy, bolstered the positions of competing political rivals.

The Old Calendarist movement, described as a protest against the Orthodox Church’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1924, was also a staunch royalist, anti-Communist movement that even divided the U.S. Greek Orthodox community.

The deeply rooted antagonisms of the National Schism were contributing factors in the disastrous military breakdown in Turkey that led to the exchange of populations in 1923; the collapse of numerous governments and the rise of a military dictatorship between the two world wars; the ruthless civil war that followed World War II and the often violent exchanges between republicans and monarchists up until the establishment of a parliamentary democratic republic in 1974.

Somehow during this turbulence, renewal movements blossomed within the Orthodox Church of Greece. Among the most prominent, Zoi combined traditional monastic spirituality with an active apostolate, not unlike the charism of the Augustinian or Benedictine communities in the West.

At its height in the mid-1960’s, Zoi counted more than 130 members, mostly theologians (of whom only 34 were priests), who worked to reanimate the Greek Orthodox clergy and laity, emphasizing personal piety. Though Zoi and its sister movements are no longer growing, they have profoundly influenced the leadership of the church of Greece.

For the past 25 years, Greece has been relatively stable both politically and economically. Divisions in Greek society have healed, somewhat, but fear of outsiders, particularly the Turks, and a reticence for dialogue continue to plague it.

When Archbishop Christodoulos assumed leadership of the church in 1998, he pledged to increase the church’s role in society, extend outreach to the young, eradicate xenophobia and racism and affirm Greece’s role in Europe.

The archbishop’s warm reception of Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s jubilee pilgrimage in 2000 has opened the church further, affirming the role and contribution of the Orthodox Church of Church in an increasingly unified Europe.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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