Corfu, Greece -- In a quiet corner of this Greek island, overlooking the Ionian Sea, a handsome 32-year-old welcomes guests to the tables of his seaside taverna. When Nikos Aspiotis, an Orthodox Christian, set up business at Peroulades with his English Catholic wife, Louise, he had trouble making ends meet. Three years on, not withstanding the recession, things are looking up. Despite their different origins, the couple is well-accepted by the local Greek community. Sadly, this hasn't always been true of Catholics in ancient, scenic places like Corfu.
"The government doesn't recognize our Church, so officially we don't exist," explained Archbishop Yannis Spiteris of Corfu, Zante and Kefalonia, whose Catholic archdiocese is one of four in Greece. "We don't want privileges, just equal treatment and an end to discrimination, and ordinary people have no trouble understanding this. It sometimes seems they have a more mature and judicious view of others than our own government and Orthodox Church."
Religious minorities have often complained of discrimination in Greece, a member of the European Union and NATO, whose constitution declares Orthodoxy the "dominant religion" and requires public office-holders to take an oath before an Orthodox priest. The established Church claims the spiritual loyalty of 97 percent of a 10.4 million population, and it has its clergy paid by the state and its decrees published in official newspapers. But it shuns contact with other denominations, including the Catholic Church, whose parishes are denied legal status or access to public funding, and can even have trouble obtaining electricity supplies.
In December 2006, the Orthodox Church's then leader, Archbishop Christodoulos, visited the Vatican and signed a joint declaration with the pope pledging "fruitful collaboration" and "a dialogue in truth with a view to re-establishing the full communion of faith." To date, such commitments haven't filtered through.
"Although things are polite between us, we have no official relations -- it's assumed being Greek means being Orthodox," Archbishop Spiteris, whose Church has 50,000 Greek members and an estimated 150,000 foreign adherents, told Our Sunday Visitor in an interview.
"Since the Second Vatican Council, even without being in communion, Catholics have recognized Orthodox sacraments and changed their attitudes. But the Orthodox simply haven't reciprocated -- they still insist on living apart." There has been some pressure for change.
In June 2006, Greek parliamentarians voted to strip the Orthodox Church of its right to be consulted over the construction of non-Orthodox places of worship. And, calls for Orthodoxy's constitutional status to be reviewed have been encouraged by bad publicity, such as this May, when the Church's Holy Synod defrocked a senior archbishop after he was sent to jail for embezzlement and corruption. While moves like this remain mired in drawn-out legal procedures, there have been few signs of improvement for Catholics on the ground.
Greece's center-right premier, Costas Karamanlis, has shied away from demands for civil oaths and hasn't backed calls for scrapping a ban on proselytism, which has landed Greece in trouble with the European Court of Justice.
"A large part of the political world here, including current government ministers, are characterized, if not by distrust, then at least by one-sidedness resulting from ignorance," Archbishop Nikolaos Printezis, general secretary of Greece's six-member bishops conference, told the Eleftherotypia daily recently. "In refusing recognition to the Catholic Church for years, the authorities seem to be guided not by legal considerations, but by an opportunism linked to the eventual political cost of any decision."
Hopes of progress
Some Catholics are more optimistic. On the island of Rhodes, the English vicar general, Father John Luke, thinks the local authorities are generally sympathetic and is sure legal rights will come eventually. The Catholic Church here survived Arab and Turkish occupations and has traditionally lived peacefully alongside the island's Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.
At its main church of Santa Maria, Masses are celebrated in Latin, French, German and Polish. But the main language is Greek, and the church flies a Greek flag. Orthodox Christians regularly attend liturgies here and donate to Catholic charities. When the bishops conference and Vatican nuncio met on Rhodes two years ago, the local Orthodox metropolitan invited them to dinner.
"Of course, some Orthodox clergy aren't enthusiastic about Church unity, but we can move forward in our relations," Father Luke told OSV.
"Greece is still a deeply Christian country, and people are quite accustomed to Catholics. If we're open about who we are, show our love for Greece and give a positive impression of ourselves, people will be ready to help."
Permanent improvements could still take time. This summer, the Orthodox metropolitans of Pireus, Kythera and Gortys-Megalopolis joined other senior Orthodox clergy in a"Confession of Faith against Ecumenism." The document denounced the papacy as a "womb of heresies" and pledged to resist all dealings with Catholics and Protestants.
Father Stefanos Avramidis, a member of the Orthodox Church's Committee for Inter-Christian Relations, told OSV his governing Holy Synod hadn't "rejected or accepted" the Confession. "As things stand, our church is still participating in the ecumenical movement -- it's open to serious dialogue with other denominations, and it couldn't do this without contacts with them," the Church official said. "But everyone has a right in Orthodoxy to express opinions and positions, and there's a strong element here against ecumenism."
For now, this looks set to remain the standard view among Greek Orthodox leaders.
As for Nikos Aspiotis, Louise and their daughter, they look forward to another year at the taverna in Peroulades. Outside, along the beach road, on a clear day, locals say you can make out the coast of Italy, 70 miles across the Adriatic -- a reminder of the closeness of cultures where people are judged by their qualities, not by their religious affiliations.
The state of the Church in Greece today
The Catholic archdiocese, founded in 1210, counts three cardinals among its 64 previous incumbents, but Corfu's Catholic population is now down to just 3,500, with seven priests and nine nuns to service its six surviving churches and chapels. "Although local people are peaceful and law-abiding, they aren't very religious -- though they don't reject the Church, they're generally indifferent to it," Archbishop Yannis Spiteris told OSV. "Although we've tried to renew enthusiasm for the Catholic faith through youth work and other initiatives, we depend on the energy and generosity of tourists to provide encouragement and reassurance."
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.