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21 August 2000

The ayatollah replaces Zorba

A row over identity cards is giving the powerful Orthodox priests of Greece a chance to exploit a da

By Helena Smith

Strange things are going on in Greece. The country is wrestling with an identity crisis and the Eastern Orthodox Church, feeling wronged, appears to have gone mad.

Where you think you spot a priest, you invariably discover an activist – men in black with stovepipe hats denouncing the “dark forces” behind Athens’s unusually progressive government. The enlightened call them Orthodox ayatollahs.

It’s worrying stuff, the sort of thing that might make Pericles really writhe in his grave. The cause of such rancour? The removal of any reference to religion on civilian identity cards. For a country in which 97 per cent of the population is Christian and Eastern Orthodox, it would seem an innocuous enough move. But in Greece – the European Union’s only Orthodox state – it has had an unexpectedly explosive effect: all at once, Hellenes have had to ask themselves who, and what, they want to be. And they are doing it in a way that is not showing them in the best of lights.

Greece’s spiritual leaders – the self-styled protectors of Hellenism through 400 years of Ottoman rule – retain an influence on civil life unknown in any other part of the west: they officiate at the swearing-in of governments, the inauguration of public and private projects and the blessing of private homes. In recognition of those close ties, clerics receive state salaries. In their view, the Greeks are caught up in their toughest fight yet to remain a cut above the rest; to preserve their Christian Byzantine roots from the “meat grinder” that is the EU.

Drop religious affiliation from identity cards – originally introduced by a military dictatorship in the late 1930s – and, the clerics argue, you sound the death knell of a single nation state.

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The Greek prime minister, Costas Simitis, has tried to counter all this by insisting that the reform brings Greece into line with its European partners, and that “the declaration of one’s religious affiliation is not only discriminatory, but offensive. It insults the right of every individual to privacy and religious freedom.”

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The Church, however, remains adamant. Greece’s bearded clerics regard the “identity crisis” as the sort of thing that could drag the nation into “civil war”. In June, more than a million Greeks (one-tenth of the population) flocked to hear Archbishop Christodoulos, the Church Primate, denounce the measure as the first step in a sinister plot to de-Hellenise Greece. “Our faith is the foundation of our identity. If you abolish one, you abolish the other,” the archbishop thundered, as the crowd of rumbustious flag-wavers cheered. The scenes were reminiscent of the fundamentalist fervour that once ran riot in Iran.

Increasingly, human rights groups have begun to wonder whether Greece is a nice place, after all. Over the past ten years, Athens has been repeatedly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for violations involving all of its religious minorities. Away from the warm, taverna-terraced beaches, fun-loving Zorbas and tourist-trampled temples, Greeks treat those who dare to be different with red-hot contempt.

Try being a Jew, Catholic, Muslim or Protestant, and you will not get far – as the ranks of the Civil Service, diplomatic corps and army so amply prove. Try being an immigrant, and you are viewed as the reason for unemployment and crime. Try mentioning ethnic minorities – officially, they do not exist, bar communities of Muslims and Roma – and you may be labelled “sick in the mind”, to quote Theodore Pangalos, the country’s feisty former foreign minister. Try taking a different tack in public on the country’s so-called “national issues”, the ones involving Turkey and other neighbours, and it is likely that you will be branded a traitor.

“Modern Greece is an ethno-nationalist state par excellence,” writes the commentator Takis Michas in his forthcoming book, Ethnic Totalitarianism. “‘Others’ are viewed as a source of potential danger to the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Greece.”

Twenty-six years after the collapse of the colonels, the fracas over the identity cards smacks of “the Greece of Christian Greeks”, the rebarbative slogan that those petty officers used to give their rotten regime an acceptable allure. It also proves that liberty and equality, the values that drive democracy, are still in short supply in this, the birthplace of democracy.

I write this with a heavy heart. I am not a “mishellene”, a Greek-hater, although I know I will be cast as one when this comes out. I have happily lived in and reported from Greece for the past 14 years. I think I can say that it is a magical place with some magical people.

The problem is that there are two Greeces: one that is western, modern, open, reform-minded, civic, competitive, risk-taking and international; and one that is eastern, traditional, parochial, phobic, unskilled and introverted.

The country, mercifully, is now in the hands of the former. But they are a minority – a “group of angels in a sea of devils”, as one wry observer recently put it. The political spectrum is replete with members of the “other” Greece, who see civic society, with all its talk of fundamental freedoms, as reeking of anti-nationalism.

The present identity crisis has shown how far there is to go if the twain are to meet. Greece’s troublesome priests show no sign of backing down soon. Archbishop Christodoulos may say he does not want to turn his flock into “fanatics”, but he has seen that demagoguery works. Indeed, his fighting spirit has sent shivers down the spine of the governing Socialists.

The “eastern” Greeks, who support the archbishop’s stand, can still relate to the notorious declaration of the Byzantine commander Loukas Notaras (uttered days before the sacking of Constantinople in 1453) that it would be better to see the Turkish turban in the city than the Roman cardinal’s mitre. For these people, civic society is still a dirty word. They believe that they have nothing to gain from globalisation, least of all the punishing reforms required to take the nation into Euroland’s new economic order. Passions are clearly on the rise. In the Church, the easterners see the embodiment of Greece’s defensive national identity, the only bulwark left against the creation of a threatening, multi- cultural, open society.

“There is a very big underdog coalition from which the Church can draw its strength – Greeks who feel very insecure about the phenomenal pace of change in this country,” says Professor Nikiforos Diamantouros, Greece’s ombudsman and a political scientist.

Many Greeks are now praying that the identity crisis will eventually lead to a full separation of the secular and ecclesiastical spheres. “This, I hope, will be the beginning of the formal separation of church and state,” says Nikos Dimou, the author of the bestselling book The Misery of Being Greek. “The Church is the wealthiest institution in this country, and it has far too much control. Greeks vote according to church dioceses, the constitution is in the name of the Holy Trinity and, even if they want to, they cannot die without it because the Church has ensured that civil burials don’t exist.”

There have already been calls by bishops for civil disobedience. As the government prepares to print the new ID cards, the Orthodox Church, clearly girding its loins for battle, says it will encourage people not to take possession of them.

Come 1 September, churchmen will begin collecting millions of signatures for an “informal referendum” on the issue.

Every European state is afflicted to some degree by the twin evils of populism and racism. As the only country in the EU not to border another member state, Greece differs only in the way that it perceives its own watertight identity. It remains the EU’s poorest member, badly in need of crucial economic and social reforms. Within the 15-nation bloc, Greece still has the biggest labour force of civil servants and small-time self-employed.

The Greeks have experienced more years of authoritarian, right-wing rule than perhaps any other nation on the Continent. The generation born since the restoration of real liberty in 1974 is the first never to have experienced war, civil strife or major economic convulsions. Understandably, it feels more secure – as the unprecedented enthusiasm for recent rapprochement between Athens and Ankara has shown.

Now that the identity crisis is out in the open, and with this new generation in mind, it is hoped that the Greeks will finally be able to accept the idea that their own homogeneity is a myth. Already, taboos have been lifted, not least around the once sacred subject of the role of their Church.

There are few who are saying such things aloud. But, one way or another, good may come of the madness.

Helena Smith has been awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University for her coverage of Greece and the Balkans as the Athens-based correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer