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They flocked from Games

Church holds sway on this day

ATHENS -- During yesterday's celebration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Greek orthodox clergy had a stern reminder for the organizers of the Olympic Games: No matter what the advertisements and speeches say about Greece's modern, Western orientation, this country is still the domain of its decidedly traditional, ubiquitous state-sanctioned religion. Speaking over the Byzantine chants of a colleague at the Athens Orthodox Cathedral, Father Eirinaios Nakos, 30, wryly pointed out that his church had held sway for millennia before the modern Olympic movement was revived.

"We support the Olympiad, but the Church does not believe in the ancient pagan aspects of the Olympic movement, which are idolatrous," he said. "For example, the Olympic flame is idolatry."

As if to underscore the point, yesterday thousands thronged to the islands of Paros and Tinos, celebrated for icons of the Virgin Mary believed to work miracles, to observe Aug. 15 -- the biggest religious holiday in Greece other than Easter.

In Athens, hundreds more flocked to morning services at some of the hundreds of churches across the country consecrated to the Virgin Mary.

Alone among European countries, Greece has a state religion -- Orthodox Christianity -- and an estimated 97 percent of the country belongs to the Church. Prime ministers and top military generals routinely attend religious festivities like yesterday's parade of the icon of the Virgin around the capital of Paros island.

There's no official separation of church and state. The government pays salaries to 12,000 priests, and provides health care and pensions to thousands more monks and nuns. Less than 10 percent of those who marry choose a civil ceremony over a religious one.

Only after a political battle in the late 1990s did the former socialist government issue identity cards that don't note the holder's religion -- but the fierce street protests led by Archbishop Christodoulos, the Greek church's leader, convinced the government to abandon its quest to enshrine a legal wall between church and state.

Last year, Christodoulos led an intense campaign against the European Union constitution, arguing that it exhibited "hostility toward Christianity" for not enshrining the religion's role in shaping European identity.

In short, while Games organizers tout a progressive Greece that resolutely looks forward, the incense-scented Byzantine realm of Christodoulos's church thrives far beyond the reach of the Olympiad.

"They might think we live in the Middle Ages, that we're anachronistic, and they don't want to show this side of Greek culture too much," Eirinaos said. "Some politicians on the left tried to separate church from state, but the Greek people don't want that to happen."

At least 2,000 volunteers working for the Athens 2004 organizing committee during the Games came from the Church. Most of the Greek Olympic team attended a special service at the main cathedral with the archbishop Aug. 1. The tightly choreographed Olympic opening ceremony depicted Greek history from ancient times, and featured several saints and priests.

"If the Church hadn't been so active, and pushed so hard, they wouldn't have shown our central place in Greek history," Eirinaos said.

The Church's love for tradition hasn't stopped it from piggy-backing on the Olympics marketing.

Eirinaos scoffs at the idea of performing church services in modern Greek. But he's thrilled to embrace other modern accoutrements, like the cell phone he uses to communicate with the teenagers he's recruited for the church choir, or e-mail, which he uses to stay in touch with acquaintances. Many people watching yesterday's road cycling race even went in-and-out between the church and the event through downtown Athens. Throughout the city, churches feature a multilingual pamphlet entitled "Welcome to the Olympic Games" which directs visitors to Orthodox services in a variety of languages and advertises books about the church.

In the heart of the Monastiraki tourist district, the Church has erected an outdoor shrine with an icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ, a panoply of angels, and a risky artistic innovation by Orthodox standards -- icons of saints painted not on walls but on Plexiglass.

Byzantine chants, as well as instrumental music by Vangelis (the Greek composer who wrote the theme for the movie "Chariots of Fire") play softly.

Sotirios Vagias, 34, a church official who grew up in Chicago but moved to Greece 10 years ago, is on hand, wearing a tennis shirt with the Athens 2004 logo, to answer questions about the display and sell books about the Church's art, history, and dogma. "The point is to show another side of Greek society," Vagias said. "Everything is tied into the church here. Greek people are born into the church, baptized, married, sometimes ordained, and when they die, the funeral rites are read."

Vagias won't trade in his old identity card, which identifies him as a Greek Orthodox Christian. "There is no state without the Church," he said.

On almost every block in the city center, there's a church or shrine, as well as on most rural hilltops. Black-robed priests with square, flat-top hats pour from a monastery in the ritzy Kolonaki district at lunchtime. In downtown Athens, some of the most visible secular landmarks, like the ministry of education and the Evangelismos hospital, are located on land donated to the government by the Church, which is Greece's largest property owner.

In a push to further broaden the Church's reach, Christodoulos has scrapped old rules. While a sign in English warns visitors to enter the main cathedral only in "modest attire -- no shorts," none of the church staff scold the Greek women in tank tops with high-cut midriffs who come in to light candles and kiss the icons.

"The Church here obviously has huge influence," said Steve Harrison, 29, from Virginia Beach, who's in Athens coaching an Olympic swimmer, as he and a companion wandered into the church and posed for pictures before the icon kiosk.

But not everyone is thrilled at the central position -- and enormous political power -- the Orthodox church wields.

Epaminontas Aronis, 67, a Greek who lives in Switzerland, cherishes the church's rituals and lights a candle to his deceased mother every time he passes an open church. But he said Greece should follow the lead of its European neighbors, who don't allow loopholes like the Church's ability to trump zoning laws for developers who add chapels to illegally constructed dwellings.

"We still have a dictatorship of the church here," he said.

Thanassis Cambanis's email address is tcambanis@globe.com.

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