They were like two friends who had reached a level of familiarity that that does not need to be reaffirmed by regular contact: Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Archbishop Ieronymos spoke for a while during the holy blessing ahead of the reopening of Parliament in Athens last Monday.
Tsipras asked Ieronymos for a meeting in the coming days. The Church of Greece had yet to express its opposition to the bill on gender identity but Tsipras must have known it was coming, just as he knew the Holy Synod would veto any proposal to separate the church and state in the Greek Constitution.
These issues have weighed on the prime minister’s relationship with the head of the church but it is said that they have not inflicted heavy damage.
The pair’s relationship was of a deeply personal nature from soon after they met, exactly five years ago in October 2012. Tsipras was the opposition leader at the time, when his father suddenly died. The archbishop offered to personally lead the funeral service.
Ieronymos, who is said to not be prone to hiding behind his religious role, won over Tsipras. There is a story that during the meal after the service, the archbishop broke the ice by joking with the would-be prime minister about his political comrades: “My boy, how are you going to govern with these guys? They don’t even cross themselves.”
In the years that followed, it became clear that despite various dogmatic differences between the church and the left, Ieronymos and Tsipras would not have any problems in developing a relationship that is officially described as “functional.” These ties were tested during the dispute last year over religious studies textbooks in schools but were revived again when then-Education Minister Nikos Fylis was sacrificed.
The effects of the pair’s relationship are still visible, even during the current turbulence caused by the bill on gender identity. The Holy Synod issued a statement containing severe criticism of the draft legislation and called on MPs to vote against it. This was an expected reaction and not one considered as being disruptive. Despite the Holy Synod’s stance, the leadership of the Church of Greece did not seem to want to take the matter further and pursue a confrontation with the government, as it had done over the school books. Church sources suggest that the archbishop operates with “clear-mindedness” and “institutional restraint.”
This restraint was visible when Ieronymos was asked about the gender bill following the religious ceremony for the resumption of parliamentary activity. He dismissed the issue as “child’s play” and an “invention to waste our time.”
Even the veto on the separation of church and state was revived almost out of habit during the Holy Synod’s meeting. In reality, neither side sees the issue of altering the constitution as a priority. Also, neither side has yet given in to its zealots, the conservative “activists” in Ieronymos’s case and, on the other side, the extreme leftists who wanted Tsipras to clash with the church.
The functionality of their relationship appears to be based on a mutual understanding that is not related to dogma or institutions. This summer, the government and the archbishopric started taking steps toward making commercial use of property that belongs to the church. Archbishop Ieronymos made special reference to the process, which is being overseen by Education Minister Costas Gavroglou and Alternate Economy Minister Alexis Haritsis on the government’s side, during the meeting of the Holy Synod. Coalition sources say that the church is hoping that the scheme will lead to obstacles, which relate to ownership doubts and prevent it making commercial use of valuable property, being overcome.
The government led by New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras had tried to do something similar in the past, when it created a public company in 2013 to manage church property, but it did not have time to deliver results. The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition appears to have given assurances that this time the process will be faster.
It would not be the first time that the current administration provides the church with a financial boost. It did something similar recently when it decided to exempt any real estate owned by monasteries on Mount Athos from property tax. This prompted some monasteries that are friendly to the government to invite Tsipras to visit the semi-autonomous monastic community in northern Greece. But they did not take into account the conservative resistance within the religious community, which led to plans for such a visit being abandoned.
For SYRIZA officials who still stick by their left-wing anti-clerical beliefs, these concessions were unnecessary in tactical terms, as well as being ideologically wrong. They argue that the prime minister’s office is overestimating the influence of the church.
These are the same people, though, who sense that the archbishop has effective political antennae and feel that he has already started moving closer to New Democracy.