Identity Crisis

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Greece is wrestling with an identity crisis millions of them, in fact. As the country becomes the 12th member of the European Monetary Union and makes plans to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, its introduction of a new form of national identity card one that scraps any reference to religious affiliation has ignited a fierce debate with (and within) the Greek Orthodox Church.

In Greece, 97% of the native-born population is baptized into the Orthodox Church, which views itself as the true guardian of Hellenic identity. And some church leaders fear that changing the identity document which every Greek over the age of 15 must carry signals the start of divorce proceedings between church and state, a split long sought by Greek socialist governments but anathema to the 167-year-old, 10-million-member religious institution. In the northeastern port city of Salonika last week, a furious Archbishop Christodoulous of Athens, the church's leader, implored a crowd of more than 100,000 people to resist any change that means "bleaching religion from Greek history." Addressing himself to the government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis, Christodoulous cried: "Your efforts are futile. The people do not follow you ... You think you will accomplish your plans with the sword of power. You are mistaken."

Simitis and his backers, however, are determined to bring Greece into the mainstream of European practice. The new identity cards which are still being designed, but which are expected to be half the size of the current blue ones would also eliminate such details as occupation, spouse's name, nationality and thumb-print. Insisting that new privacy laws require the changes, the government sees the church's opposition as political and out of bounds. Some top clerics agree and have refused to join the protests.

Adding insult to injury for the Orthodox clergy was the timing of Simitis' move. Announced in May, it came just a month after his victory in the toughest election contest in Greece since democracy was restored in 1974, and the church contends that its support was critical. Simitis and his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) squeaked back into office, edging past the conservative New Democracy Party by a single percentage point. But despite the vociferous protests of Christodoulos, Simitis has refused to meet with him to discuss the issue.

Human rights campaigners and religious minorities are backing the government. Some Jews and Muslims say the current identity-card system, introduced in the mid-1930s by the country's then military dictatorship, makes them targets for discrimination. "It's the minority that is in need of safeguarding," says Yannis Konidaris, an authority on religious rights and law and a former adviser to the Archbishop. Indeed, Greece's record on minority rights has not always been exemplary. It was not until recent years, for example, that Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses were allowed to hold senior positions in the government or the military.

The rhetoric of the Orthodox clergy echoes that heard 13 years ago, when the government at the time, led by Andreas Papandreou, sought to transfer the church's vast property holdings to the state. After thousands of monks and priests took to the streets in protest, Papandreou backed down. Today, says Metropolite Ierotheos, head of the church's 2004 Olympic Council, "the church has ways of arm-twisting the government." With the Olympics in Athens in four years, and many critical organizational problems ahead, the clergy has pledged significant support that the politicians cannot afford to spurn. The church also owns some of the most exclusive real estate along the capital's southern seacoast, where luxury hotel rooms might be built. "If they want our help," says Ierotheos, "Mr. Simitis better start calling Christodoulos." If he doesn't, say church officials, millions of people won't be picking up their new identity cards.

Reported by Anthee Carassava/Salonika