THU, 25 JUN 1998 15:08:12 GMT
AIM Athens, 24 June, 1998
During the last days of May 1998, Greek society experienced intense nationalistic paroxysm, reminiscent of the good old days of Greek hysteria regarding the Macedonian question. It seems that in Greece, apart from history, hysteria, too, repeats herself. Different incidents that took place, within a few days, preceded various manifestations of nationalism.
For years, Greek nationalism has been "using" the Greek Orthodox Church as an extra ace for the building (and the strengthening) of Hellenic national identity. That explains, in a way, why Eastern Orthodoxy is constitutionally recognized as the "dominant" religion in Greece and why the Greek Church has an everyday presence in various "state issues". Many foreign experts find it difficult to explain why the Greek Church "sticks its nose" into the business of State. Peculiarities, such as the obligatory oath to the Gospel, the Church's required prior approval for building or repairing a non-Orthodox church or a mosque, the compulsory teaching of a course on the Orthodox religion, in all levels of education, the inclusion of religion in the identity cards; all these are inconceivable by European standards. Tolerance may be guaranteed by the constitution, but non-conformity to official practices has its price. A Greek citizen can refuse to take an oath to the Gospel or allow his children to follow religious education, but only if he or she justifies the reasons for this refusal; that is, he or she states publicly his or her, obviously non-Orthodox religious identity. This type of obligation is, by nature, discriminatory.
The election of the new Greek Archbishop coincided with the discussions, in the Greek Parliament, on the forthcoming constitutional revisions including a possible, however belated, separation between Church and State. Left wing parties, several deputies of the governing socialist party, as well as several Greek intellectuals and journalists seemed to be in favor of this separation, arguing that this would be a good "liberating tonic" for both the State and the Church. The enthroning of the new Archbishop came right on time for the 53 deputies of the Greek parliament who asked for the abolition of the religious oath hoping, in this way, to "detect" the intentions of the new Church leader and the public feeling. Archbishop Christodoulos, from the very first moment, "showed his true colors". In one of his public speeches, he insinuated that all those who want a "weak" Orthodox Church (in other words, the supporters of separation) do not deserve their Greek name and identity. He also criticized the Greek President, Mr. Stefanopoulos, when the latter met with the leadership of an Old Calendarist (sectarian) Orthodox Church. The conservative press, as well as the fascist weekly newspaper "Stohos," saw in him the new spiritual leader who would inspire the Greek nation. In one of its editorials, "Eleftheros Typos", the largest selling rightist, and populist, daily, stated that "the Archbishop expresses, in words, the skepticism and sensitivity of Greek patriots, beyond any political party and any ideology". As to the ideology, there are some doubts. The new Archbishop seems to be having a rich "nationalistic" record. Last year, as a Metropolitan, he had participated (together with other "promising", for the Church hierarchy, bishops and priests) in a "patriotic" seminar of the fascist newspaper "Stohos". With the exception of the conservative press, the rest of the newspapers tried to investigate over the "range" of the Archbishop's competence and tolerance. To what extent is he allowed to interfere into "the business of others"? The least consoling in this case is not the position of the Greek Church but the political weakness to proceed to this separation between the State and the Church and establish in Greece an "impartial" State, "referee" of human rights, free from the slightest "hint" of intolerance produced by nationalism. The ongoing attachment of the Orthodox Church to the Greek State does not leave much space left for the religious minorities to feel as "equal" as the Orthodox majority.
Following, in fact, the new Archbishop's enthroning, the Council of State (the country's supreme administrative court) decided that one hour per week of teaching of the course on Orthodox religion is not enough for the development of the religious conscience of the students of senior high school. The Ministry of Education had decided to restrict the teaching of the particular course (and of many others) from two hours to one, in order to enrich the school timetable, of the secondary level, with additional courses. Many intellectuals and academics reacted by arguing that these matters do not belong to the State Court jurisdiction and that a similar decision would not have be taken in the case of Chemistry or Ancient Greek. The explanation of this court decision seems conforms with the Church's position. Within the frame of the right to education, the Constitution acknowledges responsibility to the Greek State to deal with the development of national and religious conscience of the future Greek citizens. Since Greeks, in their absolute majority, are Orthodox, the Council of State explicitly defines the obligation of both the teaching in depth and the attendance of this course. Non-Orthodox children are excluded from this obligation provided that their parents explain, in public, the reasons for their exclusion. When a high court, such as the Council of State, recognizes that the Orthodox religious tradition is part of the Greek national identity, then one cannot doubt about the "inferiority complex" of religious minorities in Greece.
If the Council of State itself does not dispute the role of the Church to the ongoing building of the Greek national identity how can an academic, freely, doubt about the "national contribution" of the Orthodox clergy during the 400 years of the Ottoman bondage? Mr. Angelou, together with a team of professors from the University of Crete, published a scholarly study on the myth of the so-called "Secret Schools". According to this myth, during the 400 years that preceded the Greek revolution against the Ottomans, Greeks were not allowed to learn Greek language and history and develop their national identity. That would have made it easier for the Turks to assimilate the Greek population of their Empire. The myth attributes to the Orthodox clergy the initiative for the creation of "secret schools", highlighting them as a mean for the transmission of Greek language and history. Priests were secretly teaching Greek children (into caves, cellars and basements) and it was due to them that the Greek nation was able to stand the bondage of the Ottomans and finally revolt against them. In this study, Mr. Angelou claims that "Secret Schools" are, indeed, a myth, explicitly stating that this myth served the building of Greek national identity, functioning as an alibi for the Church's actual compromise with the Ottoman authorities. This academic position was strongly criticized by many columnists, journalists and readers, more on the basis of the writer's "anti-Greek" intentions than on the basis of its scholarly value. A columnist in "Kathimerini", a morning conservative daily, expressed her disapproval in a very demonstrative way: "This book will make the Turks happy. The timing for this public dispute on the importance of the Orthodox clergy in the transmission of Greek history and culture - just a few days after the enthroning of the new Archbishop - seem to be serving other purposes than the mere international presentation of the book by Associated Press".
The attribution of "anti-Greek" intentions is a frequent criterion for the evaluation of academic work in Greece. Before Mr. Angelou, we had the case of Ms. Karakasidou, a Greek anthropologist who wrote studies on the Macedonian minority in Greece. But the greatest paradox is, however, that similar "anti-Greek" intentions were attributed to a Greek linguist, who could be considered as the "national (and nationalist) linguist of Greece". According to another prominent linguist at the University of Thessaloniki "for decades, Mr. Babiniotis has been promoting the values of 'linguistic cleansing', investing on various dimensions of Greek nationalism". He was also one of the scholarly warriors against the international recognition of the Macedonian language. In his new dictionary of the Greek language, Mr. Babiniotis gives two meanings for the word "Bulgarian". As expected, one is the name of the citizen of Bulgaria. The second interpretation (with a pejorative meaning) is the "nickname" that the football fans of Greek Southern teams give to the corresponding fans of Greek Northern teams, in an attempt to provoke their feelings of national pride. The mere reporting in the dictionary of this second interpretation was judged as anti-Greek and a public dialogue started, not so much on the basis of the scholarly merit to include a word or a meaning in a dictionary, but on the basis of the national purpose that this inclusion or exclusion would serve. Is it the word that "makes" the dictionary or the dictionary that "make" the word? Is it wise to "legitimize" and accept a word that serves anti-national designs? But is it the word itself, the people that use this word or the linguist who writes it down who have anti-national designs? That was the counter argument in this absurd dialogue. The Greek Minister of Culture, Ev. Venizelos ( also a professor of constitutional law) spoke about a "lexicographic error" while the Minister of Macedonia and Thrace, Mr. Petsalnikos, characterized the inclusion of the second interpretation a "great mistake". Along the same line, Mr. Haitides, deputy of the New Democracy party, found the content of the dictionary "unacceptable and offensive". The most irrational of all was about to follow. A Greek citizen (a lawyer and a member of the City Council of Thessaloniki) went to the court and demanded the elimination of the particular interpretation from the dictionary and its withdrawal from the market. The Greek Court "found a case" and forbade temporarily the sale of the dictionary, pending final judgment. According to Greek Constitution academic research and free expression of thought and speech are of vital importance for a democratic society. However it seems that, in Greece, censorship has an alibi when it comes to threatening national identity. If tolerance, according to a dictionary, means "the willingness to accept or allow behavior, beliefs, customs etc., which one does not like or agree with, without opposition" then these reactions on the "anti-Greek" designs of another dictionary can only be considered as proof of intolerance.
Last but not least, in the most demonstrative expression of intolerance, two deputies of the opposition party New Democracy made some very "innovative" (according to the "Eleftheros Typos") suggestions regarding the presence of (Albanian) immigrants in Greece. One of them, Mr. Andreoulakos, in a parliamentary session, stated (20/5) that the problem of illegal immigration should be faced immediately and that one solution would be the immediate deportation of such intruders. In case they dare come back, then detention to concentration camps in some isolated islands (used for the Greek communists during the Cold War) would be the best way for the Greek State to get rid of their presence. Another deputy of New Democracy, Mr. Karatzaferis, in the same parliamentary debate, suggested that the sources of income of immigrants should be controlled with procedures similar to those of the civil servants, to find out who is making money out of what. One would have normally expected their colleagues to react to such bluntly racist positions, as would have happened in any other European Union parliament. To many people's disappointment the "sound of silence" was instead the only "audible" reaction. If the famous Greek composer, Mr. Theodorakis, is right that "silence means guilt", then all the participants in that session are guilty since they did not seem to be ill at ease listening after so many years about the dynamic "coming back" of concentration camps. Instead of a public demonstration of sensitivity and a loud defense of human rights and tolerance, deputies as well as all major political parties chose silence. Fortunately, with the exception of the rightist "Eleftheros Typos" that praised the "innovative" spirit of both deputies, the rest of the Greek press condemned both the statements and the (absence of) attitude of their colleagues. The center-left evening daily "Eleftherotypia" spoke about a "racist delirium", while "Kathimerini" judged the two deputies' declarations as "racist, fascist and inconceivable".
Did that all help change the prevailing attitude in Greece? Hardly. The Archbishop went on calling his critics Greeklings. Eighteen more lawsuits against the dictionary were brought, and the ban was prolonged for a month. While these and other deputies, in another debate a month later, in mid-June, called all three of their colleagues from the Turkish minority "agents of Turkey." The ensuing silence was "deafening."