Tritsis law passed 18 years ago sparked long battle yet to end

Transferring the Church’s vast property holdings to the state could require superhuman powers. The last time that land was surveyed and registered was 20 years ago. Its worth was then estimated to be about 7.6 trillion drachmas – the equivalent of 22.3 million euros at the 2001 conversion rate, but worth considerably more today. During the survey two decades ago, there were several omissions – the greatest of which was the exclusion of most of the smaller plots that measured less than 5 hectares. The total area of the larger properties then amounted to 85,573 hectares. Five years later, then Metropolitan of Alexandroupolis Anthimos served on the committee negotiating the land survey with the state. Anthimos presented data showing that monastic property totaled 130,000 hectares. Then, a decade ago, a third survey appeared. Representatives of eight monasteries presented data putting the value of the property at 7.64 trillion drachmas – while fighting the Tritsis law on Church property at the European Court of Human Rights. Whichever survey is correct, the fact remains that the Church’s property assets are enormous and often poorly managed. This is the case despite a law passed 18 years ago ruling that all Church property should be transferred to state ownership, apart from land surrounding monasteries in a 200-meter radius. During those 18 years, the state has only sporadically tried to deal with the issue – and with good reason: The Church Hierarchy has always claimed that its property was being «seized.» Back in 1987, when the current archbishop of Greece, Christodoulos, was metropolitan of Dimitrias, he publicly protested the Tritsis law during a rally. «Will they also take away the candles?» he had asked the crowd. So the state left the candles in their place, along with the rest of the Church’s assets. However, it continues to pay out 200 million euros annually in salaries for clerics. The latest chapter in the saga came about seven years ago. Ilias Beriatos, then the Agriculture Ministry’s general secretary for forests, wrote to regional general secretaries and asked to set up committees in accordance with the Tritsis law. He wanted to determine which monastery land would be transferred to state ownership. The process came to an abrupt halt after Archbishop Christodoulos fired off a letter to the ministers for agriculture, education and religious affairs. Christodoulos virtually asked for Beriatos’s «head on a plate» and called the initiative «arbitrary preposterous, abusive and dangerous.» Since then, no one has made any moves to discuss the land issue, apart from perhaps some private conversations between the archbishop and government officials. This issue is not just about the occasionally volatile relationship between Church and state. It involves thousands of hectares of valuable land. The fate of these holdings is particularly serious for people living in urban blight in the greater Athens area and many other parts of Greece. «Thousands of transfers (read ‘sales’) of forest, pasture and other lands are being made all over Greece without any controls and without anyone being called to account,» said Beriatos on how the land is being managed by the monasteries.The Association of Municipalities was just as scathing in a recent memorandum on the protection of Mount Pendeli. «The monastery (authorities) are relying on the inaction of the committee and the various state services and are behaving as sole owners of all remaining state forestland,» the memo read. «Various profiteers and land-grabbers are encroaching upon state property by means of illegal transactions. Soon there will be nothing left for the state to take over. Moreover, the current state of affairs has created an illegal siege mechanism that conspires against the existence of state forests (pressure to include forests in town plans, illegal fencing, illegal construction, arson, etc).» The Church Hierarchy’s own position on the land it administers is typical of its attitude in general to the question of forests. It calls for the declassification of forests, particularly in Attica. Archbishop Christodoulos, in a letter to the previous government, asked the education minister to declassify Church land that had «arbitrarily been classified as forest.»