Letter from Thessaloniki

Today’s northern Greeks are confused about themselves as a settlement to the Macedonia name dispute appears most improbable before the NATO summit starting next week. Yet that is no reason for other people to become confused about them – that is, about us, who, among other doubts, keep asking ourselves whether it is, after all, morally permissible to enforce morality per se. Generally speaking, our society here in Thessaloniki tends to keep a different distance from national issues than Athenians do. A sudden renewal of legal moralism is more apparent in the north than in the south of the country. Presided over by such luminaries (we should be flattered, shouldn’t we?) as the region’s prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis (who, to the giggles and groans of the local audience recently dressed up as Zorro for the carnival), the city’s Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos (who still prefers to be bad-mouthed rather than not talked about at all), a respectable head of the Macedonian Studies Society, Nikos Mertzos, a gentleman to the last, rightly believing that holding rallies is pointless, the self-acclaimed professor Costas Zouraris and a bishop, Anthimos, who has not yet learned to appreciate the value of restraint – our poor city is the rare example of a place which is able both to mock and to celebrate its Greekness. The impending failure to take the long-pending decision for NATO’s expansion into Southeastern Europe is not the only problem facing the good folk of Thessaloniki at the moment. Yesterday, the paternally minded Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki, in his Sunday sermon once again attacked government plans to give flesh and bone to another looming menace, namely its plans to introduce a cohabitation law granting the same rights to couples who live together as those who are married. Even worse – according to the city’s outspoken bishop – is the danger of making this «sinful law» applicable to homosexuals. Such a decision would degrade the human species and «make them equal to animals» he emphasized. «Even the Brits, who…» etc etc His Beatitude said, do not have a similar law. Only a fortnight ago, the Church of Greece’s Holy Synod declared in the most vigorous fashion its disagreement with the government’s bid to give unmarried couples greater rights, stating that any form of cohabitation other than a couple married in an Orthodox Church is tantamount to «prostitution.» Obviously the pious fathers forgot that in our state of affluence, prostitution continues to flourish for the plain reason that it is needed. In a youth-worshipping fatherland like Macedonia (not to forget the name issue), in such an «erotic city» – according to the late neo-philosopher Kostis Moskof, who coined the nickname for his native city, if most men and women were forced to rely on physical charm to attract lovers, their sexual lives would not only be miserable, but agonizingly brief. «Our congregation should facilitate our drive against such immorality,» our local bishop emphasized yesterday, being quite explicit about the «catastrophic bomb» which is allegedly being placed under «the foundations of Greek society.» Any new law that allows couples to make their relationship official by merely signing a simple notarial contract is forbidden, our bishop insists, overlooking the fact that we live in a time in which the question of morality and its relation to the law has been pretty much decided. Moreover, it is fortunate that in actual practice, the laws of the state are seldom enforced in Greece. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean President Bush, a born-again Christian as he claims, has been even more explicit in exerting pressure on the Greek side on the name issue. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said «the entry of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia into NATO would be a stabilizing factor in the Balkans,» adding that «it would be a pity if something that has to do with antiquity were to get in the way of… a very important step for Macedonia and for NATO.» Unhappily many Greeks resent what they see as foreign meddling in their country’s politics. Sure enough, without having recourse to Dr Gallup, it would not be easy to decide what, if anything, the general public of Macedonia thinks about these matters. And that goes for name issues and promiscuity too. But apart from the nationalistic LAOS party, no other political forces in Greece agree to holding rallies and referendums. Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens has distanced himself from the Holy Synod’s decision, which apparently was influenced by our Anthimos of Thessaloniki – who has described cohabitation between unmarried couples as «unholy prostitution» – saying that the Church should be more open-minded and less moralistic. «The Church is what Christ wants it to be, not what people want it to be,» Ieronymos recently told a congregation at Kalamata Cathedral. «We are giving the impression that the role of the Church is to force people to be good,» the good archbishop said. At the other end of the scale Anthimos, the religious fundamentalist, seems to be irresistibly drawn to the God of the Old Testament at his most forbidding and cruel, and the sternness of St Paul appears to him far more agreeable than the occasional charity of Jesus.

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