By Elias Hazou
THE STATE is continuing to fully supplement priests’ wages despite a 2013 decision by this administration to slash the payout by 15 per cent.
A long-standing agreement with the church stipulates that the government will pay part of 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 original agreement was signed in 1971 by Archbishop Makarios, who was at the time also the president, effectively meaning Makarios had made a deal with himself.
A decision for cutting rural priests’ wages by 15 per cent had been taken under the previous administration back in 2012. It also asked for the re-negotiation of the agreement, such as redefining the term “rural” and setting a ceiling on the number of priests on the government’s payroll.
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.
In July 2013 the cabinet upheld the prior decision under the Christofias government for the 15 per cent cut, and instructed the treasury not to accept new applications by rural priests.
Barely a month later – and apparently urged by President Nicos Anastasiades – the cabinet rescinded that decision, citing the financial difficulties facing the church. But the cabinet also authorised Finance Minister Harris Georgiades to renegotiate the whole deal with the Archbishopric.
In October 2013 Georgiades wrote to Archbishop Chrysostomos asking that the church hold up its end of the bargain by ceding to the state the land pledged in the 1971 agreement.
But despite a series of meetings between church officials and the government, nothing has changed since.
Politis, which has been tracking the story, reports that the church refuses to budge because it claims the state, by wanting to cut priests’ salaries, is not keeping up its end of the deal.
In the meantime, the number of priests on the government payroll went up from 709 in December 2013 to 734 in December 2014.
Additionally, not only has the annual €6.5m payout not decreased, but according to Politis the amount is to be raised to €6.6m next year, and to €6.7m in 2017.
In the meantime, it’s understood that the cash-strapped church itself has made cutbacks to priests’ salaries.
Rural priests get €674 a month from the state, the rest of their income coming from the church.
The state’s input was fixed in 1971, with the amount then tied to the wages of teachers at the time. However, when teachers’ salaries were subsequently bumped up, the priests’ wages were recalibrated using a different formula.
The church initially went along with this, only to later claim that the state unilaterally modified the agreement. This despite the fact that, to date, taxpayers have shelled out well over €100m in priests’ wages.