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Easter pain, revival not just symbolic to crisis-hit Greeks

Penitents flagellate themselves as part of Lenten observance in Angeles City, Pampanga province, north of Manila/AFP

Penitents flagellate themselves as part of Lenten observance in Angeles City, Pampanga province, north of Manila/AFP

ATHENS, Apr 19 – Trials, suffering, resurrection: the essence of Easter has a special ring to Greeks as the country hopes to pull through a painful six-year recession.

In churches around the country, religious symbolism takes on a very practical relevance for those still struggling from four years of austerity, ever since the country nearly went bankrupt in 2010.

“We must undergo tests like Jesus Christ did in his time,” says Kostas, a pensioner who has just attended a two-hour sermon in the working-class Athens district of Agios Nikolaos.

“At the end of the tunnel, I see the hope of a new beginning. Greece will manage. It returned to borrowing markets, tourism is on the rise,” he adds.

The government says the ailing Greek economy will register slim growth this year after six straight years of recession and soaring unemployment.

“In Greece today, the Easter resurrection symbolises the return to better days and a chance for all to overcome adversity,” argues theology professor Yiorgos Patronos.

Last week, the country made its first successful bond sale since 2010, a sign of confidence in its fiscal reforms.

But the crisis is far from over and living standards in Greece, which has lost a quarter of its output during the recession, will take years to recover.

“The end of the crisis is not in sight,” says Lila, an unemployed woman in her forties who attended the church sermon.

“Every year I would spend Easter with my family on the island of Chios. This year, I no longer have the means to do so.”

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Every year, the country’s crisis features in the annual message of the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, read to some 10 million Orthodox Greeks in churches on Saturday.

“In the difficult times our land is going through… illuminating our lives with the light of the Resurrection takes on a special meaning,” Ieronymos will say in this year’s address, according to a pre-released copy of the speech seen by AFP.

The archbishop will also urge the faithful “to see with courage and optimism the difficult and often painful task to change ourselves, our family, our land and our life”.

“We can do this.”

– Help thy neighbour –

The district of Agios Nikolaos in Athens is one of many in the capital where poverty-hit migrants have gradually replaced Greeks in the last decade.

There is palpable tension in Greece towards hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, who are thought to have brought down living standards and increased petty crime.

Such sentiment has helped boost the ratings of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which won 18 seats in parliament in 2012, and is still a force to be reckoned with despite an ongoing criminal investigation against its leading members.

The district of Agios Panteleimon, where Golden Dawn began attacks on migrants that fuelled its rise a few years ago, lies nearby.

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So at the church which gives the district of Agios Nikolaos its name, Father Nikolaos will use Easter, when church attendance is at its peak, to deliver a double message to his congregation.

“First, one should not put faith on material goods because they can disappear,” he tells AFP.

“And, nobody can call themselves a Christian unless they help their neighbour, be they Greek Orthodox, foreign or of a different persuasion,” he adds.

But the priest insists he wants no part of politics, and bemoans the fact that a number of senior churchmen supported Golden Dawn at first, when the party sent vigilante squads to crack down on crime.

“Our Church stands opposed to this party. Our message is one of anti-racism and solidarity,” he says, noting that his services deliver 120 meals to the needy in the area on a daily basis.

It is a message that strikes many in the congregation as more meaningful than that of the government.

“I have more confidence in him than in certain politicians,” says Lila.


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