It was a poignant way to open what is likely to be a troubled academic year. In his customary message to elementary and middle school teachers and pupils, Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, admitted that the older generation has failed in its task to bequeath a better world upon the younger generation.
“The world that we have made for our children is unfair and divided by a deep fissure that cuts through all societies and splits them into those who are prosperous and those who are not,” he said. Nobody can doubt the accuracy of the archbishop’s assessment of the mess being passed on to young people in Greece and around the world.
However, the rapidly deteriorating economic and social circumstances perhaps demand that Ieronymos adopt a more decisive role than that of a detached commentator. The Church of Greece, though, remains bafflingly silent on the crucial issues bedeviling Greece today. The rise and condemnable behavior of far-right Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) is one of the worrying developments that the church has yet to take a position on.
As Ieronymos’s message was being read out earlier this week, a head teacher at an elementary school in Patra was reportedly wondering aloud in his speech to parents about whether he should turn to Golden Dawn to ask for help in solving the school’s maintenance problems.
The neofascist party has done a tremendous job in filling the gap that has emerged between a retreating state and a distrustful and despondent public. By supplanting authority and answering to citizens’ everyday gripes and needs, Golden Dawn is broadening its supporter base. It is a recipe that has been followed successfully by extremist parties in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The group’s latest ruse is to bring its own brand of squadrismo to open-air markets and church fetes. In Rafina on Friday and Mesolongi on Saturday, Golden Dawn supporters and MPs marched through the markets, demanding to see the identification papers of migrant traders, as well as some locals, and then proceeded to smash any stalls belonging to undocumented immigrants.
Golden Dawn’s intent to usurp authority has been in evidence before, when it demanded to check IDs at a handout of free food in central Athens to ensure that no immigrants had infiltrated the Greek-only queue. But the market raids went a step further. By bringing down its batons and flagpoles on those stands, Golden Dawn was announcing its intention to take on executive, not just administrative, powers.
The collapsing political system appears to be gradually waking up to the threat posed by the brazen extremists. Parliament’s ethics committee took a stand, albeit a muddled one, on the issue on Thursday and Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis announced tougher penalties for hate crimes on Wednesday. Even the police may be forced to look in the mirror and confront the insidiousness of Golden Dawn’s influence after the guard assigned to one of the party’s MP was spotted taking part in the raid on Mesolongi market.
However, the Church continues to keep a distance from the issue. This despite the fact that Friday’s raid took place outside a church in Rafina while a service was taking place inside. It is surprising that this perversion of Christ kicking over money changers’ tables in a Jerusalem temple did not elicit condemnation from the church.
The political system’s avarice, corruption and selfishness have played a part in leading Greece into this crisis. The ensuing recession, unemployment and breakdown of social cohesion are creating a dangerous mix. While the economic crisis can be attacked with various tools, the social crisis is a tougher proposition, the binds of which Greece will find even tougher to break.
One of the reasons is that Greece lacks a full-blown, functioning civil society — at least one that is on a par with what can be found in other European countries. This is one of the reasons that there has been no concerted response to racist attacks or the creation of a movement to counter the rise of fascism.
Here, the Church of Greece could have a significant role to play. Golden Dawn uses religion as one of its weapons in its pseudo-patriotic war. It is up to the church to remove this lance from its hand. A clear and consistent position condemning the party’s bigoted ideology would do much to set the parameters for the moral debate in Greece and would serve to undermine extremism. A move by Ieronymos to meet with other religious or minority leaders and put on a display of unity would also create a powerful image to counter that of black-clad bullies on the march.
In his statement for the opening of schools this week, Ieronymos quoted Moravian educator John Amos Comenius. “To educate is to help each person to be saved and to struggle to build a civilized society throughout the world.”
Perhaps it is time for the Church to practice what it preaches.