Radical voices against Islam within the Church hierarchy in Greece
In May 2014, Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki argued that "the major problem in Europe is not the financial crisis, but the penetration of Muslims." These words might epitomize a reservation of many members of the Orthodox Church of Greece towards Islam.
While observing the religious discourse of influential Church officials, such as the former archbishop Christodoulos, one notices a nationalist character, in which Islam is represented as a corrupting element for an imagined Greek and European Christian cultural homogeneity (Manolis Vasilakis, I mastigatou tou Theou (Athens: Gnoseis, 2006)). This religious nationalist discourse has cultivated a fertile ground for the social acceptance of an exclusionist value frame.
In cultural terms, this entails the generation of prejudice, stigmatizing the Muslim to be, in principle, the hostile alien. In ideological terms, religious discourse has led to the promotion of xenophobia, contributing to the creation of a biased image for the Muslim, who is by assumption a ‘terrorist’, and thus a threat to state security.
Moreover, in political terms this positioning has had a two-fold manifestation. First, the Church of Greece has endeavoured to influence policymaking, objecting to what it considers to be a step forward towards the ‘Islamization’ of society. For instance, a number of bishops have opposed the construction of a mosque in Athens, the only European capital without a place of Muslim worship. Second, certain religious officials have gotten involved in party politics, maintaining close links with the country’s radical right party.
By law, the state acknowledges the Orthodox Church to be the ‘established’ religion and its influence is strong. The level of religiosity among Greek is extremely high; and Orthodoxy is equated with the Greek national identity.
Data from the European Social Survey (ESS) shows that the degree to which a Greek Orthodox religious individual attaches to this exclusionist platform is relatively high. There is correlation between measures of religiosity - that is: religious self-identification, church attendance, and frequency of prayer - and exclusionist attitudes: “immigration scepticism”, and “nativism”. Attitudes regarding “immigrant scepticism” have been measured through the public’s responses to particular questions in the European Social Survey (ESS), for example: allow many immigrants: from same race? from different races? from poor countries?. The “nativism” variable has been analysed through the questions: a) “To what extent do individuals agree that the country’s cultural life is generally undermined or enriched by people coming to live here from other countries?”; and b) “To what extent do they agree that immigrants make their country a worse or better place to live?”
The results of this research establish that higher religious intensity and higher church attendance are positively correlated with more immigrant scepticism. In other words, a religious individual is highly likely to have an anti-immigrant attitude. The same result applies with regard to nativism. In particular, the survey revealed that higher religiosity is correlated with more nativist attitudes, and thus less appreciation of the contribution of immigrants to the cultural life and the living conditions of the country .
Despite these strong tendencies, efforts are made by a minority group within the Church hierarchy to adopt a more conciliatory profile, taking action against the exclusionist agenda recently. One of them is the current archbishop Hieronymus who utters a moderate discourse.The extensive social work of the Church (e.g. soup kitchens), provided without religious or ethnic criteria, has, to a certain extent, contributed to the de-legitimization of radical voices within the Church hierarchy.
Nevertheless, the continuation of the refugee crisis, without the application of an effective European policy, together with the financial crisis occurring at a national level, makes the blocking of exclusionism and its effects a highly difficult endeavour, impossible for the Church to successfully undertake alone. In any case, the current historical context presents an opportunity for the Church of Greece to release itself as an institution, as well as its people, from the extreme positions of the past, and to at the same time shape an innovative, modern image consistent with both its religious values and the principles of democracy.
 For further information on the empirical results of this research, contact the author (firstname.lastname@example.org).