By Constantinos Psillides
Accountant-general Rea Georgiou confirmed yesterday that the state had decided in 2013 to cut 15 per cent of priests’ wages but that decision was quickly repealed by order of the Palace.
Georgiou was answering a question posed by Greens MP Giorgos Perdikis.
The state has a long-standing agreement with the Church, which stipulates that the government will pay the wages of rural area priests in exchange for 3,750 acres of Church land. Over two-thirds of that land is now under Turkish occupation and thus inaccessible to the government.
The decision was reached during the previous administration and besides cutting priest’s wages by 15 per cent it also asked for the re-negotiation of the agreement and setting a ceiling on the number of priests on the government’s payroll.
The decision reflected commitments made to the troika of lenders, who had asked for an overhaul of the agreement made between the state and church.
But the treasury was never fully informed.
“We only found out about it by accident”, said an unnamed official. “Once we found out we notified Finance Minister Harris Georgiades so he could take it to the cabinet to see if the decision was still valid”.
The decision was verified by the current administration on July 26 2013 but was rescinded by August 1.
A report in daily Phileleftheros yesterday said the reason for the sudden change of heart by the administration was due to an intervention by Archbishop Chrysostomos.
The original agreement between the Church and the state was signed in 1971 by Archbishop Makarios, who at the time also the president.
The land’s worth is estimated at around €200 million while the state has spent €101 million since 1983 in priest’s wages. No data exist for the amount spent on priest’s wages between 1971 and 1983.
The wages now have an annual cost of around €6 million. Currently, 725 priests receive state wages, of which 20 belong to other Christian denominations. The state had to include other priests to the government payroll due to religious discrimination legalities.
Some of the rural areas listed in the 1971 agreement included the municipalities of Strovolos, Engomi, Latsia, Lakatamia, Paralimni, Ayia Napa, Ayios Athanasios, Yermasoyia and Yeroskipou; these areas are now urban.
Their populations have since jumped in numbers, as has their economic capacity.
Auditor-general Chrystalla Georghadji has raised the issue in numerous annual reports but successive governments have failed to address it. Georghadji pointed out that the agreement is damaging to the state finances, asking for a re-negotiation with the Church.
At present, finance minister is tasked with reaching an agreement with the Church on the subject.