Greece is experiencing a profound identity crisis as it wrestles with what it means to be Greek, fundamental ties between church and state, and how Greek traditions fit in with the rest of Europe.
The debate reached a higher pitch yesterday, when the Greek Orthodox Church said as many as a half-million demonstrators were expected to turn out in the capital, Athens, for an evening protest. Vassiliki Karathanassi, a housekeeper, was among the first to arrive. "We've got to fight for our right to be Christian Orthodox Greeks," she says, waving a plastic flag with one hand and flashing an icon of the Virgin Mary with the other. "It seems [Prime Minister Costas] Simitis is capable of selling everything that Greece stands for, for the sake of appearing European."
Police were mobilized to head off possible unrest in the highly charged atmosphere. Greek Orthodox leaders called upon demonstrators not to respond to provocation.
A similar rally last week in the northern city of Thessaloniki forecast to attract 5,000 protesters, instead drew some 120,000. The crowd cheered as Archbishop Christodoulos, with 30 black-clad bishops by his side, delivered a fiery antigovernment and anti-European speech. "We are first and foremost Greek and Orthodox, and only secondarily Europeans," he said.
The church has long taken a dim view of European integration. "Better poor with Christ than rich with Satan" declared a church statement in 1980 when Greece joined the precursor to the European Union.
The current debate erupted last month, when Mr. Simitis enacted a 1997 privacy law on personal data. Under the reform, which is in line with EU practices, citizens would no longer be required to reveal their religion, occupation, family status, nationality, and thumbprint for new state identity cards.
Government spokesman Dimitris Reppas rejects the church's call for a referendum, saying "such methods cannot apply on issues of human rights."
Greek Orthodox leaders see the removal of the "religious affiliation" line as an assault on their authority, and Greek national identity, in a country where 97 percent of the 11 million population belongs to the orthodox faith.
Taken by surprise, the archbishop, who is head of the Greek Church, called the prime minister a "dictator," arguing that the 10,000-strong clergy had backed Mr. Simitis's reelection in April on the condition that he would consult them before pressing ahead with the controversial reform.
"We were duped and cheated," says Metropolitan Theoklitos, a senior prelate and close aide to the archbishop.
At Tuesday's EU summit in Portugal, where Greece was approved to join the euro common currency as of Jan. 1, 2001, Simitis was unrepentant. "In policy decisions, we opt for the broadest possible social consensus. But if we don't have it, then we still proceed," he said.
"Case closed," added Justice Minister Michalis Stathopoulos, architect of the controversial identity reform, in an interview on Greek television yesterday. "The introduction of new identity cards poses no threat to the Greek Orthodox faith."
Orthodoxy's ties to the country are strong. The preamble to the Constitution declares it the dominant faith; the Greek flag bears a white cross in its top left corner, where stars appear on the US banner. Orthodox priests played a vital role in maintaining the Greek identity and language during 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule, and were instrumental in the 1821 independence movement.
So Greeks are wondering, do they belong to the West? Or should they resist reforms and stick to tradition? A recent poll published in the Eleftherotypia, an Athens daily, showed 46.1 percent of respondents opposed Simitis's decision. Nearly 40 percent expressed support for his move, while 14 percent were undecided.
Orthodox clerics argue that declaration of faith on state identity cards should be optional, allowing citizens to exercise their constitutional right "to express their religious freedoms upon personal consent." Opponents, however, say the case is one of human rights, and as such, the need to safeguard the minority outweighs the will of the majority.
Greece's small non-Orthodox community has fallen victim to abuse in the past. Until recent years, Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses were barred from senior government posts, including high ranks in the military.
Some clergy will even concede that the identity card, instituted by a Greek dictator 60 years ago, is "no token of real faith."
"What we are saying," argues Metropolitan Prokopios, a senior organizer of yesterday's protest, "is that we have to sit down and talk with Mr. Simitis so as to avert any other surprises. We have to rebuild our faith."
Meanwhile, Greece is also working at rebuilding other faiths. Yesterday, the parliament approved construction of the first mosque in Athens since the early 19th century. It's intended to serve muslim athletes at the 2004 Olympic Games.
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