THERE IS no rational justification for the state to carry on subsidising the monthly wages of so-called rural priests by 50 per cent. The whole arrangement is based on an agreement made in 1971 between Church and the state, both of which were represented by Archbishop Makarios, who tended to treat the country as if he owned it.
But even putting aside the questionable validity of such an agreement, it should be argued that it has now expired, because the state has more than fulfilled the obligations emanating from it. Since 1983, from when records exist, the state has paid out €136.7m in wages to rural priests. According to the 1971 deal, in exchange for the subsidies, the Church was to have given over the state land it owned, but this has still not been transferred.
The problem is that 73 per cent of this land is in the north, which makes its real value zero, even though we are misleadingly told it is worth €125m. The remaining land has been valued, probably very generously, at €34.5m, making the total a little less than €160m. If we add the money paid between 1971 and 1982, for which there are no records, it could be said that the inflated value of the land has been covered. In short, the agreement has now expired.
Yet the Anastasiades government, not only wants to commit the state to keep on paying the wage subsidies until 2029, but it has also made provisions to increase it by a million euro on the dubious grounds that the number of rural priests would increase by 100 in 10 years. How is this justified in a period when the countryside is steadily being depopulated and many areas previously considered rural have now been urbanised?
Another dubious provision in the latest version of the agreement is that the money would not be paid directly to rural priests, as had been the practice, but it would go to the Church, which would include it in the monthly salary. In this way, the Church could distribute the annual grant, which will be €6.7m in 2020 and rise to €7.7m by ’29, as it pleases, labelling any member of the clergy it chooses as a ‘rural’ priest even if he is in charge of a church in Latsia.
The matter was discussed at the House finance committee on Monday, but unconvinced deputies decided to invite the finance minister to defend the proposal for updating and renewing this absurd agreement, which makes no economic or political sense. It will be interesting to see how Harris Georgiades will defend the indefensible.