Greek church ready to stand by the people in tough times

Greek church ready to stand by the people in tough times

The Church of Greece is getting ready to assist the Greek people to face the consequences of tough economic measures taken by the government, a church official attending an ecumenical gathering in Geneva has said.

The Archbishop of Athens and All Greece and Primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece, Hieronymos II, met on Tuesday, 4 May with the country’s Prime Minister George Papandreou to express the church’s willingness to support the Greek people during the difficult times ahead, said Rev. Fr Gabriel Papanicolaou. A church official, Papanicolaou is attending a 4-6 May gathering of churches’ ecumenical officers organized by the World Council of Churches.

“The church is ready to assist in any possible way”, said Papanicolaou. “We know that the consequences of the measures will be more strongly felt after the summer, so we are getting ready, training parish priests to deal with the crisis.”

According to news reports, as a consequence of the “austerity” measures, the Greek economy is forecast to shrink 4 percent this year and 2.6 percent in 2011. Unemployment has risen to 11.3 percent, a six-year high.

The Church of Greece would stand by the “battered Greek people”, Hieronymos told Papandreou according to the state-run Athens News Agency. The church has a membership of about 10 million in a country whose population is about 11 million. Hieronymos urged “unity, strength and optimism”.

“As a church we need to bring hope to the people”, Papanicolaou explained. “But we also are preparing to supply food, clothes and other relief items, as well as to care for the needs of the people who lose their jobs, assist them with pastoral and psychological attention. The church will stand by the people as it always has.”

The church’s role, according to Papanicolaou, includes reminding the faithful of essential values which help build social cohesion. “This isn’t just an economic or financial crisis”, said Papanicolaou, “but also a crisis of values”. For Papanicolaou, consumerism and greed push people to covet more and more, spending without limits. “We need to recover the spirit of humbleness”, he added.

On 5 May three people died in the Greek capital Athens during a firebomb attack against a bank at the height of massive trade union protests. The previous day, Greek civil servants had shut down schools and hospitals and disrupted flights as they protested against additional wage cuts and tax increases unveiled by the government this week.

In a statement expressing “deepest grief for the tragic loss” of lives, Hieronymos said: “Legitimate protest is totally different from cruel violence that leads to murders.” For the archbishop, Greeks need wisdom and national unanimity “more than ever before”.

According to news reports, Greece’s contracting economy and increasing budget gap has fueled investors’ concerns about the country’s ability to service its debt. Therefore, borrowing costs reached the highest level since before the introduction of the euro currency in 1999.

Papandreou’s austerity measures aim to bring the shortfall within the European Union limit of 3 percent in 2014. In order to achieve that, he has called on Greeks to endure sacrifices in return for an unprecedented 110 billion euro bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The unpopular government measures include wage cuts for public workers, a three-year freeze on pensions, and increases in sales taxes and the prices of fuel, alcohol and tobacco.

Predictable and inevitable, but with a way out

“Many in the ecumenical movement have long been warning about the consequences of the current global financial system”, said Dr Rogate Mshana, WCC director of Justice, Diakonia and Responsibility for Creation. “If there are no changes, this system can only produce debt crisis, financial bubbles and economic crashes.”

“For several decades, Western Europe was considered a model of economic development while debt crises were experienced in Africa, Asia, Russia and Latin America”, Mshana said as the euro hit a 13-month low against the dollar. European stock markets were also affected.

“Now”, Mshana added, “there is fear of a contagion effect spreading from Greece to other European countries and some are trying to prevent this from happening by localizing the problem. However, it is a structural problem that cannot be solved by the current bailout and austerity measures.”

For Mshana, the ecumenical and ethical perspectives that emphasize justice over greed are the beginning of a possible way out of the current vicious financial circle.

“The whole financial system as we know it today needs to be dismantled and new rules be put in place”, Mshana said. “We need a new global financial architecture, one that is equitable and sustainable and able to connect the finances with the real economy.”

WCC member churches in Greece