17 March 2012

The Islands of Churches

Greece isn't the most religious place in Europe, but it is one of the few European countries to have a state religion and its countryside is literally covered in churches, cathedrals, chapels and shrines. Unlike other religious institutions in the country, though, the Greek Orthodox Church isn't required to pay any tax on their holdings - even as its clergy's salary, pension and even lodging is paid for by taxpayers.
On Andros Island, amid low bracken and soaring cypress trees, the whitewashed buildings dot every hill, every town. We walked by dozens - scores, probably - as we read and talked about what they signified. You see, religion in Greece is more than just a faith. The Greek Orthodox Church was the argument for the nation's existence in the first place.
In the springtime fields, surrounded by grazing goats and freshly bloomed flowers, Andros's little one room churches sit baking in the sun, locked up and lonely. Barely big enough to hold ten or fifteen people, some of these chapels date back centuries, to the long period of Ottoman rule.
Greek people will often try to tell you that Turkish rule nearly wiped out their religion, but that's hardly the case. It was during that period, even more so than the creation of Eastern Orthodoxy during Byzantine times, that the church was cemented as a singular thing, replacing many independent Christian sects.
For more than four hundred years, between the late 1300's and 1830, most of what is modern Greece was controlled by the Ottoman empire, along with Christian lands in Bulgaria and the Baltic. The shahs never established an official religion (though they did tax non Muslims at a higher rate), but rather segregated the population of its lands according to their belief under a structure that came to be called the "millet system." Under millet law, each religious group was to be governed by a single entity - and the Eastern Orthodox Church became the ruling authority for a large swath of people.
When Greece was fighting for its independence in the 19th century, just as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, it brought its many disparate parts together with an argument for ethnoreligious identity. Any ties to previous branches of Christianity had long since been forgotten, and the populace had grown used to religious administration - even on the most remote of the Aegean islands, people had accepted the idea that being Christian meant being "Greek." This was a major shift - before the millet system, a Cretan considered himself Cretan above all else - separate from Peloponnesians, Thracians, Athenians and all the rest of what we now consider Hellenic peoples.
Although the islands and mainland parts of Greece had never been united before, their common religion ultimately drew them together. Gradually, over more than a century, property under British, Bulgarian, Italian and Turkish rule was subsumed into the old "Kingdom of Greece," as Hellenistic partisans began demanding that their faith be taken as "Greekness" in a more formal sense.
So it's not surprising that today Greek Orthodoxy is recognized as the "prevailing" religion of the nation. Other religious institutions are taxed at rates up to thirty-five percent, while the official church pays an undisclosed, voluntary tax on its holdings. Primary and secondary schooling is done in Orthodox classrooms by law, unless both parents sign a request that their child be exempt. A top priest sits on the board of Greece's semi-public bank. It's one of the closest relationships between church and state that exists in Europe.
Shown above - underneath a church in the inland town of Menitas, delicious, drinkable water gushes forth from an ancient spring.
On Sunday in Andros town the citizens split up amongst almost a dozen churches of varying sizes, from the imposing central cathedral to this minuscule fishermen's chapel by the old dock. The town was quiet through most of the morning, then came to life as the congregants began emerging into the sunlight to take their places at cafes and bars. Some carried halved, semi-circular loaves of bread and small bouquets of flowers - a lenten tradition, we guessed.

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