THE 1971 agreement between church and state by which the taxpayer undertook to pay half the wages of priests based in the countryside until the end of the world, in exchange for 15,000 acres of church land, could be described as one of the most absurd ever made.
The church and state were represented by the same person, Archbishop Makarios, who essentially made an agreement with himself that scandalously favoured the church and showed complete disregard for the interests of the taxpayer. This one-sided agreement was challenged by nobody, because questioning Makarios’ decisions was not something that was done in those days.
That this was a sham agreement – just an excuse for the taxpayer to subsidise priests’ pay – was illustrated by the fact that the church land was never transferred to the state. Makarios never bothered arranging its transfer. In practice, this agreement should have been legally null and void as that church never honoured its signature. The land has still not been transferred, which was why the council of ministers recently submitted a bill aimed at formalising the transfer.
Ironically, 73 per cent of the land is in the Turkish-occupied area while the remaining 27 per cent was valued by the Lands and Surveys Department at €85 million in 2010. The occupied land was valued at €125 million, although the reality is that it is worth zero. In the 48 years of the agreement the taxpayer has paid much more than the value of the land, which was another good reason for terminating it.
Instead of doing this, the Anastasiades government has used the legislation for formalising the transfer of the land in order to make more concessions to the church. There is provision for the number of rural priests to increase from the current number of 722 to 850 by 2025, meaning the subsidy will keep rising. With more and more people leaving villages and moving to the towns by what logic is the number of rural priests expected to increase by 15 per cent in the next six years?
We can only speculate that this is a ruse to increase the annual state subsidy to the church. This could be the reason why the new bill envisages the total of the wage subsidy going to the archbishopric which would then distribute it among the rural priests. Until now, the state money was paid directly to each rural priest. The archbishopric can now claim whatever number of rural priest it decides as there will be no way of checking how it disposes of the state money. According to Haravghi the taxpayer will give the church €56m over the next eight years, regardless of how many rural priests there actually are.
Instead of ending this absurdly one-sided and unjust agreement, on the grounds that the church has been paid the value of its land many times over, the government through its bill has found a way to keep giving the archbishopric an annual subsidy, supposedly for paying rural priests that we are asked to believe will keep increasing even as ever more villages are abandoned.