ALL over Greece, from the Ionian islands to the border villages of Thrace, youngsters aged between five and 17 are settling down to a year of schooling whose content is carefully mandated by the ministry of education. And for the great majority of them, religion, and Orthodox Christianity in particular, will be an important part of the diet. At elementary schools, for example, the ministry wants pupils to be taught to «understand the world as a wonderful creation of God, which humans can enjoy and feel grateful for»; at secondary schools, depending on their age, kids may find themselves studying the Old or the New Testament, the Orthodox Christian calendar, «other Christian confessions» – ie, the Protestant or Catholic faiths – or other world religions, or bioethical questions. This weekend marks the expiry of the annual deadline for applications for a waiver from religion courses; and in practice, only a small minority will cut the classes.
But the terms of the opt-out, and the nature of state-mandated religious instruction, have been contested recently. Greece’s radical leftist prime minister, Alexis Tsipras (pictured), is a declared atheist; his long-term aim is to unravel the close relationship between the Greek state and the Orthodox church, whose role as the country’s prevailing religion is enshrined by many articles in the constitution. On re-election last month, he named as education minister a secularist politician, Nikos Filis, who had protested over the warm official reception given earlier this year to a casket of saintly relics which were loaned to Greece by the Catholic church in Venice. Soon after the new cabinet’s formation, the deputy education minister declared that the procedure for opting out of religion classes would be made much simpler. People braced themselves for a good old-fashioned clash between state and ecclesiastical authority.
But only days later, the spirit of confrontation was exorcised. Mr Filis had an emollient meeting with the archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos, at which he promised the prelate that no unilateral actions would be taken. Greek journalists were told in briefings that the government appreciated the church’s humanitarian work to relieve poverty, and it hoped for amicable state-church cooperation over the use of church property for public benefit. They were also assured that the nature of religious education had altered already, and would change more, towards general religious knowledge and away from devotional instruction. But the change would happen in liaison with the church. This weekend, Mr Filis made a new demonstration of friendship with the church by attending the enthronement of a bishop.
What lies behind all this? First, it’s not surprising that a government minister wanted to simplify the opt-out. In what seemed like a sop to devout voters, dodging religion courses was actually made harder by a regulation introduced in January during the final days of Greece’s previous government (a centre-right/centre-left coalition). That regulation stipulates that the parents of the child (or the youngster him/herself, in the final year) must make a formal declaration to the school; this must specify that the pupil is «not an Orthodox Christian» and therefore seeks exemption on grounds of conscience. The school is encouraged to make sure that this claim is well-founded. This procedure sets the bar very high, given the lingering sense, among many Hellenes, that to declare that you are not Orthodox, at least nominally, is almost like saying you are not Greek.
What really happens in Greek schools depends a lot on human factors. At elementary schools, teachers are supposed to mingle religious instruction with everything else; this comes naturally to some pedagogues and not to others. At secondary school, there are dedicated religion teachers, who usually have (Orthodox) theology degrees; they have a choice between using very old-fashioned text-books, or some user-friendly electronic material which pupils seem to like. But older teachers can’t or won’t use the internet.
George Kapetanakis, who teaches in an Athens high school, is a moderniser who likes pupils to make their own videos, for example about the way different religions pray and the buildings they use. Contrary to what you’d expect, he finds that migrant children (including Albanian Muslims who are very numerous) don’t usually opt out; the ones who consistently do are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are viewed with great suspicion by the Orthodox church. But before the new regulation was introduced, up to a third of the pupils in certain Athens schools were opting out, not out of any strong objection of conscience but to get more time for other activities. Anna Tirikanidou, who has taught religion for 15 years in the more conservative environment of northern Greece, says that in the schools she knows, very few pupils, apart from Jehovah’s Witnesses, opt out. She has seen Muslim pupils participate enthusiastically, for example in class discussions about the fasting rules for different religions.
Perhaps none of that should be a surprise. Even (or perhaps especially) in countries where the state tries to regulate and fine-tune everything, practices on the ground tend to evolve at their own pace as social reality changes. And one of the realities facing any prime minister of Greece, regardless of ideology, is that head-on confrontation with the church comes at a high political price. Too high a price, apparently, for Mr Tsipras, who has plenty of other things to worry about: not just an ongoing economic crisis, but rumbling geopolitical tension in the region, a state of affairs which has often prompted the Greeks to rally round their religion.