By R. Nastranis
Church leaders from around the world have expressed solidarity with the much pooh-poohed and crisis-ridden Greece in a two-day visit to the country during which they met Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece as well as the Deputy Foreign Minister Constantinos Tsiaras.
They were told that the severe challenges facing Greece are only one part of a larger dilemma within Europe and the rest of the world. This reflects not only a potential economic catastrophe but an emerging moral and spiritual degradation reaching into the heart of the European Union and the current economic system.
Greece is a member of the Eurozone along with 16 European Union members: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.
The ecumenical delegation to Greece comprised the World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit from the (Lutheran) Church of Norway and Conference of European Churches (CEC) general secretary Rev. Dr Guy Liagre from Belgium as well as eight other church leaders.
The World Council of Churches claims to bring together 349 churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world. According to its website, while the bulk of the WCC’s founding churches were European and North American, today most member churches are in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.
The Conference of European Churches came into being after the Second World War on the initiative of leading representatives of European churches. Their intention was that the churches in Europe should support one another in the exercise of the ministry of reconciliation incumbent on them all.
In discussions with the WCC and CEC delegation, the Greek archbishop pointed to a wider crisis and specifically spoke of a growing bitterness as Greeks are not only suffering from the reality of economic turmoil but there is now a negative characterization of them in the media. “This cannot help things,” he said.
“The Greek are not thieves, they are not fraudulent, they are not lazy as represented in publications throughout Europe,” the archbishop said. “They are hardworking people of love, honour, hospitality, with a sense of dignity.”
As the sides move apart because of increasing differences of perception, he said, “flour needs to go through two stones to press it.”
“It is not just a Greek crisis but crisis on the other bank,” the archbishop said of the responsibility each must assume. “In this difficult moment the church is invited to lift up the souls of people and to restore their souls.”
Greece has a severe problem, Tsiaras told the delegation on November 19. While Greece may be at the centre of this problem, he said, “Greece is not the whole problem.” The problem is much deeper than just Greece, the minister said, adding that “Greece is trying hard during this period to avoid a situation that could be worse than what we have now.”
“We are not going to leave the economy to collapse,” he added. But, “the European Union has to show solidarity as a value of its existence.”
“A time of crisis is a time for solidarity, unity and love and not a time to divide,” WCC general secretary Tveit said in the meeting with Tsiaras, and he reiterated this in discussion with Archbishop Ieronymos. “No crisis is only a crisis but it is also an opportunity.”
If the situation of Greece were merely economic, it could be tackled in time. However, an increasing divide between the two primary players in the crisis, Greece and Germany, is raising tensions, misunderstandings and challenging the very roots of the European Union while pushing the church to reassert its role.
“We really suffer with our friends,” Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria said. “We are all one Europe.” At the same time he recognized the negative image of Greeks within German society and even the government.
“I plead for humility on the German side,” Bedford-Strohm said in discussions with the archbishop. He said that in recent celebrations of the national holiday commemorating German reunification, he recognized that Germany at one time received the compassion of the world, “given freedom after World War II when it did not deserve it or earn it.”
“I see a change in thinking on the part of the German politicians,” he said. “Your message is starting to be heard.”
Bedford-Strohm was alluding to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first visit to the country in October 2012 since its mounting debt tipped it into its worst postwar economic crisis. Merkel insisted that she was not coming to act as a “schoolmistress who wants to grade Greece.”
Living beyond means
According to non-German sources such as BBC, the broadcaster based in UK, which is not a member of the Eurozone, Greece was living beyond its means even before it joined the euro. After it adopted the single currency, public spending soared.
“Public sector wages, for example, rose 50% between 1999 and 2007 – far faster than in other Eurozone countries. And while money flowed out of the government’s coffers, its income was hit by widespread tax evasion. So, after years of overspending, its budget deficit – the difference between spending and income – spiralled out of control.
“When the global financial downturn hit, therefore, Greece was ill-prepared to cope. Debt levels reached the point where the country was no longer able to repay its loans, and was forced to ask for help from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the form of massive loans. In the short term, however, the conditions attached to these loans have compounded Greece’s woes.”
The total debt of Greece amounts to $407 billion of which it owes French banks $38 billion, German banks $5.5 billion, UK banks $8.2 billion and U.S. banks $3.5 billion. In May 2010, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided $140 billion of bailout loans to Greece to help the government pay its creditors.
But, as the BBC points out, it soon became apparent that this would not be enough, so a second, 130 billion-euro bailout was agreed earlier in 2012. As well as these two loans, which are made in stages, the vast majority of Greece’s private creditors agreed to write off more than half of the debts owed to them by Athens. They also agreed to replace existing loans with new loans at a lower rate of interest.
However, in return for all these loans, the EU and IMF insisted that Greece embark on a major austerity drive involving drastic spending cuts, tax rises, and labour market and pension reforms. These have had a devastating effect on Greece’s already weak economic recovery. The latest Greek budget predicts that the economy will shrink 6.5% in 2012 and a further 4.5% in 2013. Greece has already been in recession for four years.
Bedford-Strohm said that the leaders of the European Union need to return to the founding values of the union and asked the WCC and CEC to raise their voice. “They should address the European Parliament with a strong voice and say they are not in harmony with the founding principles.”
The church delegation saw first-hand how complex the situation has become in Greece. At one soup kitchen in downtown Athens which is sponsored by the Church of Greece, the Anglican Church and several African immigrant Pentecostal Churches, the line of some 1,000 people in need of food included Afghans, Syrians and North Africans. Marking a more recent change, one third of them were Greeks.
Approximately 250,000 people are fed daily through soup kitchens and food packages that the Greek Archdiocese and Metropolises provide for the poor citizens, Father Chavatzas who is in charge of the General Charities of the Archdiocese of Athens, told “SKAI” radio.
In one sense Greece has become the front door for migrants knocking on the door of Europe seeking a better life, security from conflict or political asylum. They come through Greece to the rest of Europe. Many times they don’t make it to the rest of Europe.
“I appeal for a continuation of the dialogue so we can try to understand the situation in which we live,” CEC general secretary Liagre said, expressing the hope that the church can bring a new approach to the crisis.