Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Opinion

Deal between church and state is socially unjust

The church is rich, the state is not, so why is it subsidising priests’ salaries?

By George Koumoullis

It has never been adequately explained to the public why in 1971 the state entered into a deal with the archbishopric, where the latter would transfer church land to the former in exchange for the government subsidising the salaries of the clergy, with the amount payable directly into their bank accounts.

The most widespread, and most naïve, explanation goes that the church has a cash-flow problem. But this account is patently absurd, since it’s well known that churches have multiple sources of income: donations; fees for memorial services, baptisms and marriages; not to mention their main source of income from luxury hotels and other church-owned businesses. Even an infant understands that it’s inconceivable that an organisation, with assets valued in the billions, would be unable to pay clerics’ puny wages.

The other explanation we hear is that this arrangement is “mutually beneficial”. Our MPs, evidently under pressure from the church, recently passed a law which updated the 1971 agreement between church and state. The law is blatantly slanted against taxpayers and, at the end of the day, it constitutes a transfer of wealth from the poor (who already contribute via indirect taxation to the state budget) to the wealthiest organisation, the church. In other words, a debt-ridden state is subsidising a fabulously wealthy organisation.

Whereas the archbishop may be rubbing his hands in glee, there could be no worse social injustice than what is happening here. A quick look at the numbers mentioned in parliament proves this. According to the state treasurer, the value in 2018 prices of the immovable property (in the south) which the archbishopric traded is €34.5 million. Between 1983 (no data is available before that) and 2018, the church collected from the state €136.7m; so the money spent on paying clerics’ salaries does not even come close to covering the value of the real estate.

But the real gap is far larger than the €102.2m (136.7m- 34.5m = 102.2m). The aggregated salary payouts for priests that were cited, were calculated at present-time prices, not at 2018 prices, which is what we need to do in order to compare with the church land valued at €34.5m at 2018 prices. Let me give a simple example: in 1994 the state paid the church some €4m; however, inflation between 1994 and 2018 was 50 per cent. This means that prices on average rose by 50 per cent during this time. Thus, adjusting for inflation, the 1994 expenditures in 2018 prices should be recalculated as €6m (4 x 150/100).

If we apply this formula to all the years (1983 to 2018), then we work out that the state has spent, in 2018 prices, €209m. So the gap in real terms comes to €174.5m (209m – 34.5m = 174.5m). And as if this burden were not enough, under the new law taxpayers will have to pay another €80m until the year 2029, and Lord knows what comes after that.

The social injustice goes beyond the quid pro quo between the church and the state. There is a group of taxpayers – atheists, agnostics, non-religious people – who comprise a large minority, if not a majority (no precise statistics are available) that contributes, like everyone else, to church coffers but they get nothing back in the form of “religious services”. This proportion of taxpayers is set to grow as education levels rise, given that there demonstrably exists an inverse relationship between religiosity and education. In this sense, the recent law is indisputably unfair to a cross-section of Cypriots.

Only in Greece and in Belgium are clerics’ wages paid in full by the state. But these are examples to be avoided.

If we must adopt foreign practices, in my humble opinion we should take our cue from Germany, where priests’ salaries are paid on a voluntary basis. On their tax returns, Germans declare whether they are Protestant or Catholic. Accordingly, a percentage of their payable taxes go to one of these churches. But if they declare themselves to be atheists/agnostics/non-religious, or belonging to some other denomination, all of their taxes go to the state.

What is truly remarkable is the fear transmitted by the archbishop to our MPs. These otherwise garrulous politicians, these “high calibre” individuals, uttered not a word about this unfair law. The issue is not only political-economic, it is a sociological one. We are afraid of facing the truth. We have been so nurtured in the so-called “Greco-Christian ideals” that we’ve come to believe that the church is above the state, and that the state must pay its respects to the church. And so we continue to pretend and to hide from the truth.

Just like a professor dares not say, on the anniversary of March 25, that during Ottoman rule the church leadership strayed from the national sentiment by allying itself to the conquerors; just like a political party leader dares not say that our ruination was brought about by Ethnarchy; just like a historian dares not say that what took place on July 15, 1974 was a Greek invasion (not a coup); so too the majority of our MPs dare not speak out against the archbishop.

It is this affability and deference which serve to fan the archbishop’s audacity, to the point where he baptises anyone who dares criticise him “a leftist shill”.

George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist

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