Scandals shake Greek church

Athens, Greece - Greece has been shaken as never before by scandals involving the Orthodox Church. Almost daily come fresh revelations of corruption and shady dealings by the senior clergy.

These include tales of a fugitive drug dealer masquerading as a monk, a senior cleric held in prison without bail, secret pay-offs and rigged elections.

As Catholics reflect on the future of their church, Greeks are engaged in a national debate about the future of theirs.

For the past three months, one scandal after another has raised questions about the accountability of the church and, more importantly, its powerful role.

"These recent scandals have changed the atmosphere in the country," says Michaelis Spourdalakis, a professor of political science at the University of Athens. "People have lost their faith in the church."

More than in any other European country, the Orthodox Church in Greece is part of the national identity - about 97 per cent of Greeks are baptised into the Orthodox faith. At the same time, the church is also part of the state. Orthodoxy is the official religion, there are mandatory religion classes in schools, and the salaries of the clergy are paid by the government.

But the scandals have left many Greeks uneasy about that relationship. For the first time, a majority feels there should be separation of church and state.

According to one poll, 64.7 per cent of Greeks favour a split.

The issue has been raised in newspaper editorials, by members of parliament and even one prominent cleric. And last month, during the swearing in of Greece's new President, almost half the members of parliament staged a symbolic protest against the church - either walking out or refusing to rise - when the embattled head of the Greek church, Archbishop Christodoulos, entered the chamber.

The recent scandals centre on two individuals. The first is a senior cleric, Archimandrite Iakovos Yiossakis, implicated in a wide-ranging corruption probe and accused of bribing judges and other court officials.

Yiossakis is now in prison awaiting trial on separate charges of stealing church icons in the mid-1990s.

The second man is a shadowy ex-convict, Apostolis Vavilis, who is wanted for drug trafficking. It is alleged he has been able to elude the police for years by posing as a monk, travelling on false documents and hiding out in monasteries with the apparent complicity of church officials.