What no other prime minister dared to do, from the late Andreas Papandreou and his minister of education Antonis Tritsis in the 1980s, to Alexis Tsipras in the previous four and a half years – despite their stated intentions – was done by Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He clashed with the Church of Greece over the new coronavirus, and did not back down.
He did so in an environment that reinforced his position and in which he had common sense on his side. The form of the threat posed by the spread of Covid-19 and the constant and persuasive briefings by health experts had created such conditions that the overwhelming majority of the faithful understood that the prime minister was right.
Guided by the need to protect the common interest, Mitsotakis made clear decisions differentiating himself from perhaps the most powerful institution in the country.
Politically, it was not easy. Within his own party lies the vast majority of the country’s very conservative citizens. He may not be one of them, and he does not follow their approach, but this is not the case with most of his deputies who maintain a relationship of interdependence with the Church, often with its more conservative members. And of course these conservative citizens are also voters.
Looking ahead, it appears that the prime minister’s decision will be vindicated in society’s conscience. Even the bishops seem to be coming around, judging by the fact that the members of the Standing Holy Synod adopted the experts’ recommendations at their own meeting, avoiding physical contact and keeping a distance between each other.
In any case, what happened is that the administration’s secular approach, armed with scientific knowledge and medical results, prevailed over a dogmatism that did not serve the faith of the people, but simply endangered their lives.
Obviously, it is wrong and it does not help to see this dispute in football terms, with winners and losers.
It would be enough for the Greek Church to learn from this painful experience that when public health is at stake, then the harmonious coexistence of religious worship with science is to the benefit of all, including the Church itself.
Even Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quickly realized the reality in his country and encouraged citizens to act on instructions from doctors and experts and not the mullahs, even canceling Friday prayers at the mosques.
Pope Francis prayed to the Lord yesterday to “stop the epidemic,” but the Vatican had already decided and announced that the General Audience on Wednesdays and Sunday’s regular blessing would take place online.
Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America – the largest in numbers and most politically and economically powerful province of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – through Archbishop Elpidophoros proceeded, without any reservations, to the necessary actions and exhortations toward the faithful, asking them to refrain from church services and recognizing the obvious danger of the new coronavirus being transmitted by the Holy Communion.
The prudent approach of Archbishop Elpidophoros was emulated by the heads of other Greek Orthodox churches around the world.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul announced yesterday its “ecclesiastical decision and order to suspend all religious ceremonies, events and services until the end of March, except for the personal prayer of Christians in churches.”
This is the position that the Church of Greece failed to adopt a few days ago, when it announced that it allowed for “simple services” to be held. This attitude by the top clerics – not all agreed – in the face of a dangerous epidemic is worrisome.
Despite the Church’s known power and influence, the state did its duty. The prime minister imposed the suspension of all services in churches and all places of worship, giving priority to public health. And in doing so he dared to do the right thing.