Greek church ready to stand by the people in tough economic times

By agency reporter
May 7, 2010

The Church of Greece is getting ready to assist the Greek people to face the consequences of tough and unpopular economic measures taken by the government, a church official attending an ecumenical gathering in Geneva has said.

The Archbishop of Athens and All Greece and Primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece, Hieronymos II, met on Monday, 4 May with the country's Prime Minister, George Papandreou, to express the church's willingness to support the Greek people during the difficult times ahead, said Rev Fr Gabriel Papanicolaou.

A church official, Papanicolaou has been attending a 4-6 May gathering of churches' ecumenical officers organised by the World Council of Churches.

"The church is ready to assist in any possible way", said Papanicolaou. "We know that the consequences of the measures will be more strongly felt after the summer, so we are getting ready, training parish priests to deal with the crisis."

On 5 May, three people died in the Greek capital Athens, during a firebomb attack against a bank at the height of massive trade union protests. The previous day, Greek civil servants had shut down schools and hospitals and disrupted flights as they protested against additional wage cuts and tax increases unveiled by the government this week.

According to news reports, as a consequence of the 'austerity' measures, the Greek economy is forecast to shrink by four per cent this year and by 2.6 per cent in 2011. Unemployment has risen to 11.3 per cent, a six-year high.

The Church of Greece would stand by the "battered Greek people", Hieronymos told Papandreou according to the state-run Athens News Agency. The church has a membership of about 10 million in a country whose population is about 11 million. Hieronymos urged "unity, strength and optimism".

"As a church, we need to bring hope to the people", Papanicolaou explained. "But we also are preparing to supply food, clothes and other relief items, as well as to care for the needs of the people who lose their jobs, assist them with pastoral and psychological attention. The church will stand by the people as it always has."

The church's role, according to Papanicolaou, includes reminding the faithful of essential values which help build social cohesion. "This isn't just an economic or financial crisis", said Papanicolaou, "but also a crisis of values".

For Papanicolaou, consumerism and greed push people to covet more and more, spending without limits. "We need to recover the spirit of humbleness", he added.

According to news reports, Greece's contracting economy and increasing budget gap has fuelled investors' concerns about the country's ability to service its debt. Therefore, borrowing costs reached the highest level since before the introduction of the euro in 1999.

Papandreou's austerity measures aim to bring the shortfall within the European Union limit of three per cent in 2014. In order to achieve that, he has called on Greeks to endure sacrifices in return for an unprecedented 110 billion euro bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The unpopular government measures include wage cuts for public workers, a three-year freeze on pensions, and increases in sales taxes and the prices of fuel, alcohol and tobacco.

"Many in the ecumenical movement have long been warning about the consequences of the current global financial system", said Dr Rogate Mshana, WCC director of Justice, Diakonia and Responsibility for Creation. "If there are no changes, this system can only produce debt crisis, financial bubbles and economic crashes."

"For several decades, Western Europe was considered a model of economic development while debt crises were experienced in Africa, Asia, Russia and Latin America", Mshana said as the euro hit a 13-month low against the dollar. European stock markets were also affected.

"Now", Mshana added, "there is fear of a contagion effect spreading from Greece to other European countries and some are trying to prevent this from happening by localising the problem. However, it is a structural problem that cannot be solved by the current bailout and austerity measures."

For Mshana, the ecumenical and ethical perspectives that emphasise justice over greed are the beginning of a possible way out of the current vicious financial circle.

"The whole financial system as we know it today needs to be dismantled and new rules be put in place", Mshana said. "We need a new global financial architecture, one that is equitable and sustainable and able to connect the finances with the real economy."


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