The head of Greece’s Orthodox Church said on Saturday— the day before that nation celebrated the Easter holiday— that it was willing to put property it owns up for development to help raise money to repay the country’s debt.
The Orthodox Church is a powerful institution in Greece and owns more land than anyone except the state, including prime real estate in Athens. The scale of the Church’s assets, including land, property, artifacts, commercial revenue and shares in government companies, is unknown but experts estimate the 500-plus monasteries, 7,945 parishes, 130,000 hectares of land and 1.5 per cent stake in the Bank of Greece is worth anywhere between €7 billion to €15 billion— or almost $20 billion dollars.
“Come, let’s develop (the property) for Greece,” Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens told Greek TV in an interview during the Greek Orthodox Easter holiday weekend. “If needed by the state to cooperate, we’re here.”
Asked if the Church would consider selling off property, he said: “No, I would say let’s work together and (the state can) use the revenues to repay all its debts … but the plots of land will remain Greek, in Greek hands.”
He did not say what kinds of business developments he had in mind.
While an integral part of Greek society, critics say the Church owns too many assets, pays too little in taxes and has failed to contribute its fair share as ordinary Greeks’ bills have soared during the economic crisis.
The Church has called such accusations “a myth”.
On how has the Church has managed to keep such a deep root of power and financial independence: Elizabeth Zachariadou, retired Professor and Honorary Fellow of Turkish History at the University of Crete, says the problem is centuries old, in an interview with The Telegraph in London.
“The benefits of power within government the church enjoys today were bestowed by the Byzantine Empire. They should no longer be valid because the government that bestowed the privileges no longer exists.”
It seems the growth in the church’s wealth is also a result of fortuitous historical circumstance. “When the Greeks revolted, all religious assets or property owned by Turkish religious officials was automatically given to the Orthodox church, as opposed to being distributed evenly among Greeks,” says Dr Zachariadou. “As a result, the church’s wealth is so vast, it’s scandalous.”