Church defends its tax record

The Church of Greece has again sought to fend off accusations it is not digging deep enough into its coffers to help pull the debt-wracked country out of its economic crisis.

In an open letter addressed to the Greek prime minister and the leaders of the European Union Thursday, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece Ieronymos said the Church last year paid around 12.6 million euros in income and property taxes, adding that tax exemptions in favor of the institution have been repealed since 2010.

“In accordance with tax law, only spaces used for worship and public benefit purposes... are exempted from the tax on real estate,” he wrote.

Stiff austerity measures imposed by Greece’s lenders have strengthened calls for the Church, responsible for the sole official religion, to shoulder more of the burden also by providing the salaries for its clerics which are currently covered by the state.

That practice, Ieronymos said, was in compliance with a contractual obligation after the Church passed the majority of its rural and urban real estate property to the state following Greece’s independence from the Ottomans in the first half of the 19th century.

“Up to today, 96 percent of the remaining aforementioned property has also come to the state -- either unilaterally [through a number of laws passed by the Greek government] or through donations offered by the Church,” he wrote.

The absence of a central land registry and the Church’s decentralized structure make it hard to know exactly the amount of land under its control.

The letter also sought to water down allegations that the Church controls massive assets such as, for example, a 1.5 percent stake in the National Bank of Greece. Ieronymos said the purchase, made in October 2012, was aimed at supporting the Greek economy. “Today these shares, apart from the fact that they yield no dividend, have almost zero resale value,” wrote Ieronymos while stressing the Church’s extended charity work.

The aim of the letter, he said, was to stop “the irresponsible reproduction of erroneous and stereotypical information” which he attributed to “unfathomable expediences.” He did not explain further.


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