/ 31 January 2008

Archbishop Christodoulos, Greece’s vocal head cleric, dies at 69

The head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos, who died on January 28 aged 69 after a seven-month battle with liver cancer, was a charismatic orator who captivated and divided Greek society with his strong views on nationalism and church-state relations.

Born Christodoulos Paraskevaides in the north-eastern Greek town of Xanthi, the dynamic cleric was consistently among Greece’s most loved public figures, on a par with the nation’s president.

He was also one of the youngest candidates ever elevated to the leadership of Greece’s powerful church and among its most popular archbishops, having previously held the strategic post of secretary of the Holy Synod, the church’s supreme body, during the military junta period of 1967 t0 1974.

Elected archbishop in 1998 by the Holy Synod, Christodoulos initially broke new ground by famously extending to young people a “come as you are” invitation to attend sermons — torn jeans and earrings and all.

But hopes of a new-look church soon fell by the wayside when Christodoulos picked a fight with the ruling socialists in 2000 after they decided to delete the compulsory mention of religion from Greek citizens’ ID cards.

The move was designed to better integrate Greek Catholics, Jews and Muslims, who often face discrimination in a country that is over 90% Orthodox.

But Christodoulos suspected a plot to turn Greece into a lay state and reacted furiously, encouraging mass protests and demanding a referendum on the issue.

The challenge failed, but the archbishop remained on the warpath for other perceived threats to Greece’s religious and national identity, including globalisation, European Union edicts and Turkey’s candidacy to join the EU.

“The barbarians cannot join the family of Christians because we cannot live together,” Christodoulos said of Turkey in a 2003 sermon.

He also made headlines in 2004 by terming homosexuality a “defect” and stirred up a storm of criticism in 2001 by saying he had discerned “divine wrath” behind the September 11 attacks in the United States.

On religious issues, Christodoulos’ term was marked by a major rapprochement with the Roman Catholic church and efforts to mend a schism which has divided the two churches since 1054.

A lawyer and theologian, the archbishop ignored the wrath of Orthodox hardliners by welcoming then pope John Paul II to Athens in 2001, and in 2006 became the first head of the Church of Greece to visit the Vatican.

But his reign was also troubled by disputes closer to home, as tension rose with the Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos, spiritual head of the Orthodox Church, over the management of a number of dioceses in Greece.

Christodoulos’ image was tarnished in recent years by a high-profile church corruption scandal uncovered under his watch.

Starting in 2005, a number of senior priests were implicated in a series of sex and embezzlement scandals, including a case of tampering with judicial processes to influence rulings.

The highest-ranking casualty of the scandals was the former bishop of Athens, who received an eight-year suspended jail sentence for embezzling tens of thousands of euros.

Doctors discovered Christodoulos had liver cancer in June when he underwent surgery to remove an abnormal growth known as a polyp from his large intestine.

The archbishop travelled to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in the United States in August to receive a transplant for hepatoma, or liver cell cancer.

But although a donor was found, the archbishop could not undergo the operation because the cancer has spread to his abdominal cavity, his chief doctor in Miami, Andreas Tzakis, had said. – AFP