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‘As Christians, we cannot discriminate’

Ten to 15 people are piled up on grubby mattresses in a semi-basement. The door is ajar and I spot them easily as I park in a side street off Acharnon. They’re all foreigners, and they are not the only ones trying to survive in semi-basements. That is just one side of the coin. Walking through the square that surrounds the Church of Aghios Panteleimonas, I see couples, Greeks and migrants, parents with their children and middle-aged foreigners playing chess and dominoes. The last time I was here was when Father Prokopios, who was then the parish priest and is now the bishop of Kerniti, was the target of harsh criticism by local residents who accused him of favoring migrants over Greeks. This time I talked with his successor, Father Maximos, who was appointed in November 2009. Nationalist blogs had posted claims that Father Maximos had been criticized by his flock for having «locked the doors of the church so that the faithful could not enter» on February 23. They also claimed that two days later the congregation criticized Archbishop Ieronymos, who was present at the service. «What was said about episodes and disturbances on the Friday the bishop came to the church is absolutely false and groundless; it never happened,» said the priest. «The only thing that happened is this: When the bishop arrived, there was a woman outside the church who shouted something. There were lots of worshippers in the church and there was no reaction throughout the service, not even when I raised the issue of migrants in my address to His Grace and he spoke on the subject. It was a very peaceful service. And everyone was happy that the archbishop was there.» Father Maximos explained that there were two services that day, one at 5 p.m. and one at around 6.30 p.m., and that most of the congregation who had attended the first had left, while others came to the second: «But nobody left because of the archbishop.» The woman outside the church had also visited between Christmas and Epiphany. «She told me, ‘You can’t help foreigners and ignore the Greeks.’ I answered her graciously,» said Father Maximos. «I explained that, of course,we mustn’t abandon the Greeks; on the contrary, we must support them in every way, but as Christians we must also help all those who are in need. In fact, I checked the lists of those who receive support from the parish and found that the vast majority of them are Greek.» He said that anyone is welcome to check the records themselves. His discussion with the woman was not an «episode» he said, rather it was «an intense dialogue.» He was aware of the problems faced by his predecessor but said that he has not encountered any serious episodes. «I have often talked about the issue of migrants and urged people to treat them in a civilized manner, creating the cultural and spiritual conditions that enable any foreigner to integrate smoothly into Greek life. We shall not exclude people and discriminate against them.» He believes the Church must help its flock to deal with their problems, «but in keeping with the Gospel. We can’t send away a person who comes to us hungry. The Church must help everyone, regardless of race, color or creed, to face their problems with dignity,» said the cleric. He is opposed to the area becoming a ghetto, «either for foreigners, or for Greeks who retreat into their shells and are afraid to come out of their houses and follow their daily routine, their traditions, their culture.» Father Maximos objects to what he sees as a mistaken notion about the area, and which he believes some circles may have deliberately cultivated. «The majority of people in this area are suffering, but they don’t necessarily turn on the migrants.» His parishioners, he said, are against the area becoming a ghetto and being run-down, but they are «not against migrants.» He described the programs to help the needy, some run by the diocese, some by the parish. «Our parish has a fund for the poor and a place on Filis Street that serves food to the needy. We know the people, records are kept and sent to the diocese.» He explained how food programs help combat crime: «If someone is hungry and cannot feed their children, what are they to do? What would anyone do in their position, hopeless and in despair?» The parish can also disburse small sums according to circumstances. If someone can’t feed their family, parish workers arrange to meet them at the supermarket, or they might buy medicine for someone who is ill. «We can’t hand out large sums,» said Father Maximos. «We don’t have much revenue because of the economic crisis. Demographic change has played its part there too, as we don’t have so many Greek Orthodox in the area, and our parishioners have financial problems themselves, so they can’t give as much as they used to.» From talking to parents and teachers at local schools, Father Maximos has learnt that 50 percent of the pupils are of foreign origin; some are Christian or have been baptized as Christians. «They are mostly Muslims or atheists. We have some Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe. On the first Sunday of the month, Georgian priests officiate at a service in Georgian, and every Sunday and feast day there is a service in a Slavic language in the Chapel of Aghios Fanourios.