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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Crematoria plan outrages Greek church
Greek clergy protest at Pope John Paul II's visit last year
Greece is the only European country without a crematorium
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By the BBC's Tabitha Morgan in Athens
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These are challenging times for the undertakers of Athens.

They are running out of space to bury the dead.

But the government's attempts to solve the problem have sparked a row with the Orthodox Church.


I think that I am a free man and I have my conscience that says I have other opinions

Loucas Zamanos
Soaring property prices in the city, together with an aging population, have combined to produce a record demand for their services and a chronic shortage of burial plots.

Until now a religious burial service - conducted by a Greek Orthodox priest - has been the only legitimate way for Greeks to dispose of their dead.

Greece is one of the few countries in Europe that does not have a crematorium.

Spurred on by the shortage of available space in the capital and growing demand for an alternative to burial, the government is preparing a law to allow its citizens to be cremated if they so choose.

Church 'unnecessarily dogmatic'

For Loucas Zamanos, changes to the law are long overdue.

His father had made it clear to him that after he died he did not want his body to be buried in the family grave.

In order to carry out his father's wishes, Loucas went against Orthodox teaching and shipped the body to Poland for cremation.

He believes that the church is unnecessarily dogmatic.


Greece is a multicultural society now and has always been well-known for its acceptance of foreigners

Panayiotis Sgouridis, Parliament deputy speaker
"When they say these things, it may be all very well for the church," he argues, "but I think that I am a free man and I have my conscience that says I have other opinions."

For the cross-party group of MPs who are backing the cremation bill, the issue has more to do with bringing their country into line with the rest of Europe and respecting the rights of minorities living in Greece.

It is estimated that around 10% of the country's population are now made up of people who are not members of the Orthodox church - most of them Albanian Muslims.

Panayiotis Sgouridis, Deputy Speaker of the Greek parliament, believes the changes in the country's social fabric need to be reflected in its legislation.

"Greece is a multicultural society now and has always been well-known for its acceptance of foreigners," he says.

"All people resident in this country are Greek citizens and should have the right to choose what happens to them when they die."

Custodian of ethnic identity

But the Greek Orthodox Church is not impressed.

It sees the proposals as an attempt to undermine its influence and is committed to stopping the legislation going through.


The role of the church is to avoid this new ethos, which is completely foreign to our culture and our Christian belief

Bishop Vasilios of Trimithoundos
Since the inception of modern Greece in the early part of the 19th Century, the Orthodox Church has viewed itself as the custodian of Greek ethnic identity and the guardian of national interests.

As the Pope's visit to Greece last year revealed, many within the church still feel considerable antipathy towards Western Christianity, blaming the church in Rome for breaking away from Orthodoxy in the Middle Ages.

According to Bishop Vasilios of Trimithoundos, cremation is a violation of the natural order, an issue on which there cannot theologically be any compromise.

But perhaps more importantly, he believes the church has a duty to "protect the Greek way of life from the encroachments of Western secularism".

"The role of the church is to avoid this new ethos, which is completely foreign to our culture and our Christian belief," says the bishop.

The church has subtly reminded the government that it will be advising the faithful to vote according to their consciences in municipal elections in October.

Church influence

But direct church involvement in politics is nothing new in Greece.

"The Greek Orthodox Church influences people very much," says writer Nikos Dimou, "not on religious matters, but on political ones."


The church is against change, and it is against anything that will make Greeks look more like Europeans."

Writer Nikos Dimou
Greece has experienced considerable social upheaval over the last 10 years.

Urbanisation and an influx of immigrants from former eastern bloc countries have left their mark.

Many view the church's uncompromising stance as a reaction to this rapid pace of social change.

"The church is against change," says Dimou, " and it is against anything that will make Greeks look more like Europeans."

While legalising cremation might not appear to pose a major threat to the survival of the Greek way of life, for the church this is just what it has come to represent.

The dilemmas facing the undertakers of Athens have highlighted the issues facing Greece as it struggles to reconcile traditional notions of ethnic identity with the challenges involved in being a member of the broader European community.

See also:

15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Greece
04 May 01 | Europe
Greek fury over Pope visit
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