Greek orthodox head defends Church over tax scandals

13.07.12 @ 17:05

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - Taxes in Greece continue to slip through state scrutiny as some corporations, wealthy Greek-ship owning families, and the Greek Orthodox Church are either exempt or use loopholes to hide millions of euros.

  • Mount Athos in Greece is off limits to women and is exempt from paying VAT (Photo: Konstantinos Kazantzoglou)

In the first five months of 2012, the Greek ministry of finance registered a €300 million shortfall in collected taxes. The shortfall, notes the ministry, is primarily due to corporations having not submitted their taxes on time.

Meanwhile, ordinary Greek citizens are on the front-line of a tax collection scheme that has channelled revenue directly from their electricity bills into the state coffers to help plug the country's debt.

Associate professor of economics Rapanos Vasileios at the University of Athens says that Greek ship owners are exempt from “some laws”. Most, he told this website, register their boats overseas like in the Cayman islands even if they fly the Greek flag.

He also said no study, to his knowledge, has ever been conducted to quantify the tax-rate of high-income individuals or ship-owning families in Greece.

The country’s largest property owner - Greek Orthodox Church – is under intense scrutiny following a real-estate scandal that apparently swindled millions of euros from Greek tax payers.

His eminence metropolitan Athanasios, the representative of the church of Greece to the European Union, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (12 July) that allegations the Orthodox Church does not contribute its fair share to the Greek people in times of crisis are unfounded.

"Every revenue of the Church goes to the people according to the proofs in the documents that we can offer publicly and definitely there is transparency and everybody can see whatever is offered is not always received in a manner of gratitude," he said.

Athanasios said that local authorities are to blame for any irregularities that may have arisen from illegal appropriations of property.

"Unfortunately, it takes at least 20 to 30 years in the notoriously slow judicial system to resolve a matter of case of property. But anyway, we are here to help everyone, I assure you," he noted.

The around 2,600 monks residing at the Vatopaidi monastery in Mount Athos defied the Greek Ministry of Finance last year when it required the so-called autonomous territory pay property taxes on its commercial property.

Mount Athos, a 300 km2 peninsula in Greece, is off limits to women and is exempt from paying VAT. Its mandate prohibits “heterodox or schismatics to live on the Holy Mountain” and states its elected Abbot “must not have been convicted of malversation of monastic property.”

Its chief operator, Abbot Ephraim, is charged with money laundering and embezzlement in a land swap that saw valuable state land traded for less valuable property held by Vatopaidi.

The Hellenic court handed him a six-month suspended sentence in February 2012.

Another monk also took the blame, as well as a former judge from the area in northern Greece where the land swaps took place.

Ephraim, who posted €300,000 bail, was released after four months of detention in Korydallos prison. The former abbot is now residing at the monastery and is not allowed to leave Mount Athos.

The Greek edition of the International Herald Tribune reported that Ephraim called his conditional release "a miracle of the Virgin."

Mount Athos retains a special status in the EU's passport free Schengen rules, which was enshrined during Greece's accession to the European Union.

The European Commission, for its part, views the special status - which enables the monastery to bar women from entering the grounds - as part of the religious and cultural diversity of Europe.

"Commissioner Vassiliou, in her capacity as the commissioner responsible for education and culture, is the first to call for equal treatment of men and women, in all walks of life. At the same time, religious and cultural traditions need to be respected. We are a Europe of diversity and we should cherish that," her spokesperson told this website.