Greece and its powerful Orthodox Church tentatively agreed Tuesday to remove some 10,000 priests and auxiliary church staff from the state payroll, in a deal that could pave the way for a clearer distinction between church and state, as part of a series of austerity policies attempting to reduce the state's expenses.
Under the deal, reached between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Archbishop Ieronymos of the Church of Greece, the state will continue to pay church salaries under a different account, and stands to acquire an equal share in valuable church lands whose ownership has been a matter of dispute since the 1950s.
A joint state-church fund will also be created to develop these properties, whose full value is still being evaluated.
Under the current system, priests' salaries are paid directly from the state budget as are all civil servants. The annual cost of the priests on the government payroll is estimated at over US$200 million.
Tuesday's agreement must still be approved by the cabinet and the parliament. After the announcement drew criticism from some senior Greek clerics Wednesday, Ieronymos said that the proposals would not be applied without the consent of the church hierarchy.
A group representing priests said they would resist any attempt to strip them of their status as civil servants.
"We will struggle to ensure the present status is maintained," Father Georgios Sellis, head of the Association of Greek Priests, told the Proto Thema news website.
Tuesday's preliminary agreement coincides with parliamentary discussions on a revision of Greece's constitution.
Tsipras said he had reassured the archbishop that any constitutional changes would protect the autonomy of the Church. A leftist and self-avowed atheist, Tsipras had announced his intention in 2016 to make the Greek state "religion-neutral."
His government plans to revise the constitution's Article 3, which states that Orthodoxy is the country's "dominant" religion — to the consternation of rights groups.
One of the most powerful institutions in the country with influence in politics and justice, the Orthodox Church lays claim to extensive holdings around the country, many of which cannot be developed owing to court disputes.
Church officials have consistently bemoaned the level of tax levied on clerical real estate.
Earlier this week a Greek monastery lost a court case in which it argued that church property on lease should be exempted from land tax.