Greek Atheists Slam State Funding of ‘Holy Light’ Transport Costs

Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem.
Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, April 19, 2014. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

The Atheist Union of Greece has lambasted the Greek government for paying for the transport of a ‘holy flame’ from Israel to Greece over the Easter weekend.

As part of traditional Orthodox Easter celebrations which take place this weekend on the Orthodox calendar, the flame - which is thought to be a miracle in the Orthodox tradition and is called the Holy Light - is welcomed by Orthodox Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

The Atheist Union of Greece has written a letter to a number of government ministries this Easter, asking for the costs of the air transportation of the flame to be made public.

Citing the ongoing economic woes of the country, the union wrote in the letter: “In a time when taxpayers Greeks are experiencing cuts in wages and pensions, a severe taxation, unemployment and compression of real income, we consider unthinkable that the Greek State and therefore the Greek taxpayers give even one euro for the transfer of the supposed ‘Holy Light’.”

The Union’s president, Fotis Fragopoulos, told Newsweek that his group are campaigning for the separation of church and state in a country that he says is close to being “a theocracy”.

“This is something we explicitly ask for. In terms of our main goal as a union, the separation of church and state, we do various campaigns regarding this,” he says.

From 2002, he explains, the Greek state had paid for the transportation of the holy light from Jerusalem to Athens, and then the added cost of air transportation to a number of diocese around the country.

“What we did recently was to issue a note to the ministries of foreign affairs and finance and to ask if they can estimate the costs of all this process and inform the citizens that are being taxed and who therefore pay for this,” he says.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras greets Orthodox priests in the Greek parliament in Athens Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras greets Orthodox priests after a swearing in ceremony for Greece's new lawmakers in the Greek parliament in Athens February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

The union says it has not yet had a response.

Father Anastasios Salapatas from the Greek Orthodox church of St Panteleimon explains the tradition which begins each year in Jerusalem during Easter celebrations. The Patriarch of Jerusalem - one of the highest ranking members of the religion - enters a chapel thought to be the tomb of Jesus.

“Before he goes in there, there are some clergy from other denominations outside the chapel. Clergy from the other denominations check the patriarch does not have any matches or anything that can light anything,” he says.

“He goes in, does some prayers and miraculously at some point after he finishes his prayers, the candles he carries with him light with holy light, and at the same time the light flies all around the church of resurrection and lights candles of the people as well.”

“Because it is regarded as a sacred miracle, this is why in Greece the majority of the population belongs to the orthodox church, they like to see the holy light in Greece so the government sends a plane to bring the light over.”

And the Atheists Union of Greece - which has around 1,000 members - say the costs of all the air transportation involved should be made public, and the state should stop funding religious celebrations.

“This is just a religious activity. Since we are promoting the separation of church and state, one of our objectives is that every religious organisation should fund itself and its own activities,” says Fragopoulos.

“If the state funds one particular organisation this is discrimination for a citizen that has a different religion or no religion at all.”

According to Greek current affairs blog Keep Talking Greece, a spokesperson for the Patriarch of Jerusalem, one of the highest seats in the Orthodox Church, said: “To the Atheists’ Union’s claim that the Holy Light should not travel to Greece, I have to say that their approach seals the fact that only the people of the darkness are afraid of the Light and I assure them that despite their opposition, the Holy Light will come this year in our country.”