Greece in crisis – the Churches respond – Gazette 29th June 2012

This extended article appeared on Friday 29th June 2012 in The Church of Ireland Gazette

Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, Senior Anglican Chaplain in Athens, writes for the Gazette:

It is like being in the eye of a storm but the storm does not pass.

An Athens ‘Church in the Street’ feeding station - members of the city’s Anglican congregation, St Paul’s, serve meals in an ecumenical initiative.

An Athens ‘Church in the Street’ feeding station - members of the city’s Anglican congregation, St Paul’s, serve meals in an ecumenical initiative.

The results of the election last week in Greece brought a momentary lull. No immediate tearing up of the EU/IM F ‘Memorandum’ with its accompanying ‘austerity programme’ is to take place.

Such a policy was advocated by the somewhat combative Syriza party. If it had won the election, and there was a fear that it might, Greece might even now be exiting the eurozone and entering uncharted waters.

Despite the elections, the austerity programme (or better, restructuring programme) continues in some form or other. It is now beginning to bite hard and will continue to do so.

Closed shops blight the shopping precincts. Open begging is very much on the increase. Chemists charge the full price of items on a doctor’s prescription, leaving the customer to apply to the National Health Service for a possible rebate. This has come about because the State has not honoured its contribution to prescriptions for virtually two years.

Foreign products such as pharmaceuticals, clothing, household goods and food brands are increasingly difficult to find. Greek importers are now expected to pay up front before products are released. Except for agricultural products, Greece is heavily dependent on imports.

The purchasing power of Greece’s citizens has been greatly reduced, through cut backs in salaries, a rapid rise in unemployment, a decrease in pensions to over 30% and more of their original value, and a huge increase in regular taxation with the imposition of new taxes.

This has all fallen upon that section of Greek society which is integrated into the taxation system – the civil servants, employees of the nationalized industries and international companies.

However, it has to be remembered that 30% of the population work within the black market – small family businesses where there are no regular employment contracts.

Such employees are not automatically integrated either into the State taxation system or any kind of benefit system. On the other side, there are the wealthy Greeks (Greeks own 14% of the global shipping business) whose incomes rarely enter the country.

So it is a relatively small proportion of the population that bears the burden of the nation’s taxation. Within this group, there is a deep sense of injustice. ‘Why us and not them?’ is the question to the fore.

Canon Malcolm Bradshaw officiating in St Paul’s, Athens

Canon Malcolm Bradshaw officiating in St Paul’s, Athens

Furthermore, these people feel the State has drawn back on its promises in respect to benefits – ‘We paid in a lot, but will never receive what was anticipated.’

The situation is further inflamed by stories of extensive financial corruption by State officials and employees, along with the endemic use of the ‘brown envelope’.

It is the taxpayer along with disaffected youth who are seen demonstrating on our TV screens. This is the group that has brought into being the new opposition party, Syriza, and its programme to tear up ‘The Memorandum’.

MIGRATION

Because of the decrease in purchasing power and the lack of employment, young educated adults are following earlier generations of Greeks in migrating to northern Europe, Australia and the States.

Where this is not possible, some families are moving out of the cities to properties they own in villages. They revert to subsistence living, growing their own produce. This, they claim, provides a better quality of life.

In some rural areas – and particularly on the islands – a barter economy is beginning to emerge. Meanwhile, within the cities, pawn shops are opening often near the hospitals, the value of gold has depreciated, an increase in gambling and pyramid schemes is evident, along with a sharp rise in suicides, particularly among the decimated middle class.

Each day, outside my office window, I hear the regular crash of the lid of a municipality wheelie bin. Greeks are going through the dustbins. Sometimes this can happen in the early hours of the morning, since mothers do not want it to be known at the schools attended by their children that they ‘do the dustbins’ to help sustain the family.

A recently-defunct travel agency in the centre of Athens

A recently-defunct travel agency in the centre of Athens

The more frequent visitors to the wheelie bins are Bangladeshi, with their supermarket trolleys and metal hooks. Systematically, they ‘do the dustbins’, collecting metal, tin, copper and the like for payment and recycling.

They are just part of a very substantial migrant population now present in Greece and daily increasing in substantial figures.

These migrants come from Afghanistan, Iran, North and West Africa, the Sudan, Somalia and the Congo. Many are in their late teens and early twenties. The borders with Turkey are porous, since they consist of rivers, mountains or a coast line with closely neighbouring islands. Greece has never had the structures, the financial means or, perhaps, the will to address the issue of migration.

The migrants live with dreams of making it through to northern Europe via Greece, but find exit from Greece difficult. They are ‘stuck’ in this land with little means of moving on.

THE RESPONSE OF THE CHURCHES

Flowers placed where 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist, shot himself in Constitution Square, in front of the Parliament, saying in a note that he didn’t wish to leave his debts to his daughter.

Flowers placed where 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist, shot himself in Constitution Square, in front of the Parliament, saying in a note that he didn’t wish to leave his debts to his daughter.

The Greek Orthodox Church (92% of the population are baptized Orthodox) has traditionally acted as the ultimate safety net for providing welfare throughout the country. Where the State has not been able to provide, the Church steps in, as far as it is able, in establishing senior citizens’ residences, orphanages, homes for those living with Down’s Syndrome and the like. Each parish has its own welfare budget by which it assists with local needs.

Currently, the Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, through its parishes and with the help of central funding, distributes 10,000 meals each day in inner Athens.

Within the whole of Greece, it is estimated that the same Church distributes 250,000 meals on a daily basis.

These are complemented by similar schemes undertaken by Caritas and other religious and humanitarian organizations.

Furthermore, the Orthodox Church has organized a scheme with a popular television channel and the supermarkets that encourages people to buy extra items when shopping and to leave them at the supermarket. These are then collected, sorted and taken to centres where the impoverished can receive free handouts.

The same Church provides night shelters and hostels for the homeless. It also promotes employment programmes and medical support.

Like many institutions in Greece, the congregations of the Anglican Church are affected by the austerity programme. At St Paul’s Anglican church in Athens, the freewill offering for the first five months of this year has dropped by 50 per cent.

Members are very uncertain about their income, with continual cuts in their pensions, loss of employment and increases in taxation and prices. The threat of moving out of the eurozone remains real.

Each Sunday, food is brought to the church to be shared with those without income. Particular situations of hardship among the membership and beyond in respect to medical bills, the need of clothing, payment of electricity bills and the rent are met through the Ephraim Boms Fund.

Until now, this fund has been replenished from the Chaplaincy’s own income and donations from other Anglican Chaplaincies in Europe (as an act of solidarity), along with private donations from the UK.

The Anglican Church in Athens is also a co-founder of the ‘Church in the Street’ initiative, an ecumenical programme with the Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens and the African Pentecostal Churches in Athens that distributes 800 meals each day to homeless migrants and Greeks. Within this number are approximately 200 women and children.

The Orthodox Church finances this project, with some contributions from the Anglican Church in Athens. Personnel from the Anglican congregations and the African Pentecostal Churches assist in the manning of the queue and the distribution of food.

This programme has been running for over three years and is in need of new sources of funding. The Anglican Church in Athens also makes donations to a senior citizens’ home (sponsored by the Greek Evangelical Church) and a centre for those with Down’s Syndrome (an Orthodox foundation) which, like so many other institutions in the voluntary sector, have been severely hit by the austerity programme.

At an anti-austerity protest, riot police guard the Greek Ministry of Finance.

At an anti-austerity protest, riot police guard the Greek Ministry of Finance.

Of late, the Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens has turned to the Anglican Church in Athens to assist with twinning a kindergarten school – to be opened in September in a very deprived neighbourhood of Athens – with a similar school in the Diocese of London.

Furthermore, it has asked for educational consultants to be made available from the UK to provide advice on equipment, curriculum, ethos and administration. Beyond Athens,

Anglican congregations in Thessalonica, Corfu and Crete share in programmes to help meet the needs of those who are facing hardship, whether they are Greeks or migrants.

POLITICAL OUTLOOK

‘We are in the eye of a storm but the storm does not pass’. A coalition government emerged last week, but S yriza, the powerful opposition party, has refused to be part of it.

That is worrying. Certainly, Syriza represents the pain and anger, partly justifiable, of regular tax payers and of frustrated youth. Yet, it may prefer to shape the debate through protest on the streets rather than discussion in Parliament. Greece has to undertake radical and painful restructuring in all spheres of the public sector – taxation, education, health service, pensions, the civil service, nationalized industries – if it is to be competitive and know growth.

This restructuring should have been demanded at its entry into the eurozone and monitored through the subsequent years. In this sense, Greece’s politicians have failed it and, in another sense, so did the EU. When during those years was rigorous accountability applied?

Perhaps a certain romanticism within the EU and in Greece about the land from which Europa and European Democracy emerged necessitated contemporary Greece to be part of the EU and the eurozone.

This romanticism, and the easy availability of credit, may have clouded any serious attempt by the Greeks – and, behind them, the EU – to reform the dysfunctional and bureaucratic structures that have long operated within Greece.

The global economic crisis exposed the weaknesses. There is much more of the storm to endure before it passes and fairer weather prevails.

Photos by Christopher Ambatzi-Crecy