The government has given the green light for the transfer of some 15,000 acres of Church land to the state, almost 50 years after the initial agreement was made.
Under a 1971 deal between Church and state – both headed by Archbishop Makarios at the time – the government undertook to subsidise the monthly salary of priests in rural areas with the equivalent of €675, which is half the minimum salary a priest may receive.
In return, the state was to be given ownership of 15,564 acres of land.
Of the tracts transferred to the state by the church, 73 per cent are in the Turkish-occupied north of the island and have been valued at slightly over €125 million. The remainder, according to the land registry department, was valued at over €81 million at 2010 prices.
Although the land was granted to the state at the time the original agreement was signed – in February 1971 – and used by the government since, it was never officially transferred.
At its latest session, the cabinet authorised the land registry and the treasury to work with the Church to make all necessary arrangements to formalise the transfer.
The original deal saw the state subsidise the salaries of some 700 priests in rural areas. In the context of the 1971 agreement, ‘rural’ areas were defined as those outside the cities – meaning that highly urbanised areas like Strovolos, Aglandjia, Latsia, and Mesa Geitonia, remain classified as such.
For decades, the subsidy had been paid directly into each priest’s bank account on a monthly basis.
More recently, the agreement was revised in this respect, with the government making a lump-sum transfer to the Holy Synod’s central fund at regular intervals, and the church undertaking to make payment to individual priests.
But as daily Politis reports, to this day the beneficiaries (priests) are designated by the Church itself.
Since 1983, since records are available, the government has paid out €123.7m to subsidising priests’ salaries.
The amount has been steadily growing each year. In 2018, the subsidy came to €6.75m, whereas the state budget for 2019 provides for outlays of €6.8m. For 2020, the expense is projected to reach €7m.
Meantime a government bill designed to update the 1971 deal had made it to the floor of the House twice in 2016, first in March and then in April – but it was never passed. The same bill is languishing in committee, Politis said.