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The present history of Greek religious tension

  • 11 September 2018


For someone who is often in a wobbly state of doubt, I spend a lot of time in churches. Perhaps seeking an end to doubt? Perhaps.

A visitor to Heraklion, Crete, I discovered the Catholic church of St John the Baptist quite accidentally. A sign in the main drag points to a grimy little alley, and there the modest little building sits, rather unfortunately located opposite an ugly parking bay.

There has been a Catholic church in Heraklion since 1888, but the original structure was badly damaged in the 1959 earthquake and was rebuilt in the early 1960s. I pushed open the heavy wooden door, and found myself quite alone: recorded chants were playing, providing a welcome sense of peace.

For I had just come from the mighty and crowded edifices of St Titus, who had been a friend of the apostle Paul and became first bishop of Crete, and St Minas, the Egyptian martyr and wonder-worker who is the patron saint of Heraklion. These churches are overwhelming in their richness: the gold and silver of the icons, the huge size of the dazzling chandeliers, the soaring domes, the sheer scale of the buildings themselves.

In contrast, the Catholic church is very simple: the ceiling is curved, while natural light streams through the windows and shows plain wooden pews, framed paintings of the Stations of the Cross, and Vincenzo Marinelli's painting of the Baptism of Christ above the altar. The only three-dimensional representation is a small crucifix above a prie-dieu close to the entrance.

Today's Greek Catholics, many of whom live in wholly Catholic villages on the islands of Tinos and Syros, are mostly descended from the Venetians, who ruled large swathes of Greece from 1204 until 1669, and from the Bavarians who accompanied the German King Otto when he became the first king of the modern Greek state in 1833.

In the past it was estimated that there were between 50 and 70 thousand Catholics in Greece, but it is thought that now there are as many as 200,000. The expansion started in the 1990s, with immigration from eastern Europe, particularly from Poland, and from the Philippines.


"When a classmate of my son's informed their teacher that she had been baptised into both Catholicism and Orthodoxy because she has a French mother, the teacher drew a sharp breath and crossed herself fervently."


Inside the church were leaflets printed in Polish, and notices outside were in both Greek