Greece to separate church and state: a triumph for human rights

8 November, 2018

Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras announced plans this week to disestablish the Church of Greece. Tsipras, whose Syriza party was elected on a secularist manifesto in 2015, has secured the backing for the move from Archbishop Ieronymos II, head of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Prime Minister intends to amend the Constitution of Greece to remove references to the church and define the Greek state as ‘religiously neutral’. A constitutional amendment requires the support of a super-majority of MPs (60%) in Greece’s Hellenic Parliament. In exchange for the church’s support for secularisation, the government has agreed to award an annual fixed subsidy to the church of £175 million per year. Priests will cease to be counted as government employees.

While the Orthodox Church has acceded to modernisation, some clerics in Greece have reacted angrily, promising protests and ‘holy war’.

Welcoming the news from Greece, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘It is wonderful to see that as Greece embarks on a period of modernisation and democratic reform, its government is acting on the will of the electorate to create an inclusive, secular constitution for all the people of Greece, regardless of religion or belief.

‘We hope this will serve as a positive example to countries around the world at a time when people are hungry for radical and democratic reforms to outdated institutions.’

Greece has traditionally ranked poorly in international ratings for freedom of religion or belief, owing to the disproportionate power and influence of the Orthodox Church. Greece’s blasphemy law is actively enforced and continues to be among the worst in Europe. Prayer and religious instruction are mandatory in Greek schools, and even secular courts are adorned in Christian imagery. A law to legalise cremation was passed in 2006, but opposition from the Church of Greece meant the government will be unable to open the nation’s first secular crematorium before 2019.


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In the modern era, disestablishments have taken place in Switzerland in 1948, Portugal in 1976, Spain in 1978, Paraguay in 1992, Sweden in 2000, and Bolivia in 2009. In 2017, the Church of Norway lost some of the trappings of establishment, while retaining direct funding by the state.

Within the British Isles, the Protestant Church of Ireland was disestablished in Ireland in 1871, while the Church of England was disestablished in Wales in 1920. The establishment of the Church of England, which continues in England, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands, dates to 1534. To this day, 26 bishops vote in the British House of Lords, while the Bishop of Sodor and Mann has equivalent voting rights in the Manx parliament, and the Dean of Jersey participates in debates in the Jersey States Assembly.