The Greek Orthodox Church

Ever since Greece was part of the Byzantine Empire the Orthodox Christian faith (from Greek hē orthē doxa: 'the correct faith') has dominated in Greece. Even under the 400 years of Turkish rule and despite repeated attempts at conversion by Jesuits and Protestants, Orthodox Christianity survived and flourished. Today, the majority of Greeks (95 to 98%) have at least nominal membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Although religious observance has declined in recent years there is a clear popular attachment to the Orthodox Church as far as rites such as baptisms, marriages, and burials are concerned. And still the religious practice in Greece is higher than most other EU countries.

Greek Muslims make up about 1.3 % of the population, who live mainly in Thrace. The Mosques you see in the Cretan towns are only relics of another era and no longer in use except as tourist attractions. Greece also has some Roman Catholics and a few Protestants and Jews.

The role of the Orthodox Church in maintaining Greek ethnic and cultural identity during the years of Ottoman rule has strengthened the bond between religion and government. The constitution of 1975 while guaranteeing absolute freedom of religion describes the Orthodox Church as the 'established religion' of Greece. This official status of the church confers special privileges and obligations. For example, priests receive state salaries, the president of Greece must be affiliated with the church and major church holidays are also state holidays. And most Greeks honour and respect the Orthodox Christian faith, by attending church services and feast days, and are emotionally attached to the Orthodox Christianity as the religion of their homeland. The church is divided administratively into the Monastic Church of Greece, which has seventy-eight dioceses, the self-governing monastic community of Mt. Athos, which has constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, and the semiautonomous Church of Crete.

The Church of Crete

The Church of Crete is made up of seven metropolitans (dioceses) and the archbishopric of Crete in the capital, Herakleion. For historical reasons the Cretan church is not under the jurisdiction of the primate of Greece (the archbishop of Athens) as are most parts of the Greek Orthodox Church but under the patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarch is always an ethnic Greek but he must reside in Istanbul (previously Constantinople) and be a citizen of Turkey. Under the Ottoman Empire, the patriarch of Constantinople exercised wide-ranging powers over Orthodox Christians in the empire but the church never had a single authority figure (like the pope in the Roman Catholic Church).
A brief historical review of the Holy Archdiocese of Crete can be found here.

The churches

Church buildings are normally in a cross-in-square configuration with a dome and an icon-covered screen (the 'ikonostasis') separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church. The architecture has developed from the early christian and late Roman period in the 4th century. It is characterized by large domes, round arches and elaborate columns.

The churches are highly decorated with frescoes, icons and mosaics on almost all available surfaces in an established hierarchical order. The center of the dome is reserved for the representation of the 'Pantocrator', or Christ as the ruler of the universe. Other sacred personages occupies the lower spaces in descending order according to their importance. In this way, the entire church serves as a tangible metaphor of the celestial order. This is further enhanced by the stylized poses and gestures of the figures, their hieratic gaze, and the luminous shimmer of the silver and gold backgrounds of the icons. In traditional churches, worshipers stand throughout services, and seats are located only along the walls.

Priests and monks

Orthodox clergy include married and celibate priests. Married men may become priests, but marriage is not permitted after ordination, and only unmarried priests may move up past the rank of priest. The village priest is the traditional preserver of Greek culture and traditions, and as such he usually enjoys high respect among his parishioners. Previously, peasants often went into the priesthood for economic advancement, and in many cases a married rural priest continued his secular trade after ordination. By the 1980s, however, the social prestige of the priesthood had dropped, so children received less encouragement to enter that profession.

The monastic tradition has always been an important part of Orthodoxy. The monks can be divided into the group living as hermits, others who live in monasteries, and finally monks who live in loosely linked communities with under a common spiritual leader. The best known example of the last category is the communities at Mt. Athos, which has been in existence since 959 AD. While the Roman Catholic monks may teach and do social work, Orthodox monks devote themselves to prayer, religious studying and the production of religious manuscripts and icons. They see their ascetic life as an alternative to the martyrdom and religious persecution that monks of earlier times suffered under.

The Orthodox Calendar

For many villagers time is marked by the religious calendar. In this, there are twelve major religious festivals, called the Twelve Great Feasts. Eight honour Christ and four honour the Mother of God. Easter is the most joyously celebrated holiday.

The altar of the Cathedral of the three martyrs, Chania, Crete
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