It’s been wisely said that taxation is the price we pay for civilization. Ironically, the country that gave birth to Western civilization has overlooked this point for generations. As Greece slumps into decades of gloomy austerity in the face of its massive debt burden, the country will need to rediscover the value of paying taxes. Greek debt is so large now that every man, woman and child in Greece owes the equivalent of $35,116.
It’s long been known that the country’s wealthier citizens have evaded paying taxes on a massive scale. But, until recently, surprisingly little attention has been given to the Greek Orthodox Church which, despite being the largest land owner in Greece, pays laughably low amounts of tax. It is also a very significant employer, the salaries of which are met by the public purse, because there is no separation of church and state in Greece. But rather than look to helping the country out of its financial mire, the Orthodox Church has stoutly defended its many tax relief privileges and the lack of transparency of its records that help keep from view the extent of its tax-free wealth. Its spiritual work justifies its privileges, the Church claims.
The Church’s recent record rather undermines this claim. Early in 2015 the Church was caught out in a real estate scandal involving millions of Euros owed to the government. Church leaders blamed the court system, local government – anyone else they could find rather than acknowledge some responsibility. Abbot Ephraim, head of the ancient Mt Athos monastery, was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement after a particularly shady land swap deal was uncovered. Mt Athos is exempt from VAT taxes and does not need to comply with EU anti-discrimination laws, enabling it to keep its ancient bans on women, schismatics and the heretics. Keen to salvage some good news from the disaster, Mt Athos labelled Abbot Ephraim’s early release from his six months’ imprisonment as a “miracle of the Virgin.” In another case, a very senior Orthodox churchman, Metropolitan Kyrillos, was found to have many millions of Euros in his and his relatives’ accounts which should have been banked properly and be liable to taxation.
Two thousand years ago Jesus urged his followers to give all their possessions away, sure in the knowledge that end times are coming soon. He also urged believers to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Too bad neither of these messages count for anything among the higher-ups of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Image by Evripidis Stylianidis