Wednesday, 1 December 2010

St Tax

Last week in the western Polish city of Swiebodzin, the tallest statue of Christ was finished. It is as many metres high as the number of years that Jesus lived - three metres higher than the famous Brazilian statue of Christ that towers over Rio de Janeiro. According to Poland’s bishop Stefan Regmunt the statue is a clear sign of the people’s faith in Christ.

On Lesvos they do not need such a huge demonstration of faith. Here they just keep on building little churches. In the most remote spots, on tops of the mountains or just in somebody’s back garden you will find them, and I do not exaggerate when I say that there are more than a thousand of them on Lesvos.

The biggest concentration is at the Limonas monastery, where there is a project to build a church dedicated to every Christian saint - dozens of little churches already surround the main monastery and the plan is as ambitious as the building of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Greeks are not megalomaniacs. The grandest Orthodox churches ever built are mostly in Russia - as big as huge palaces. However, inside a Greek church you will find an awful lot of gold and other glittery decorations: it is through your senses that you feel the presence of God and the more those senses are stimulated, the better you feel His presence.

Prince Vladimir of Kiev (c 958–1015) believed in pagan gods. On one occasion he was looking for a human being to sacrifice in their honour and came across Ioann, son of Fyodor, a Christian who proclaimed his belief only in one God and told Vladimir his pagan gods were vassals of the devil. There was no way he would allow his son to be sacrificed to them. In those days, most Russian people followed the pagan way and so father and son were both killed. Now Fyodor and Ioann are seen as the first martyrs of the Russian Orthodox church.

Prince Vladimir was haunted by what happened and sent his people to other countries to study their faiths. Only when his messengers came back from Constantinople did he change his own belief. His messengers had visited a celebration at the Byzantium Hagia Sophia, a church so brilliantly decorated that they testified: ‘We were not sure if we were in heaven or on earth’. In 988 Vladimir had himself baptised, after which he married a Byzantine princess named Anna, set about the demolition of all pagan shrines and started building Orthodox churches and monasteries, styled like the one on Mt Athos in Greece.

When you enter a big Greek Orthodox church you immediately notice all its gold and glamour, the chandeliers decorated with crystal and the many icons and paintings on the walls but the little churches don’t all have this glamorous allure. A church used to be built for worshipful services or to house the relics of a saint which many have hidden in their inner sanctums. However, I doubt every one of them has one here, otherwise Lesvos would be would be a much more holy island. In the small churches there are no regular services - only once a year on the name day of the saint to whom they are dedicated.

And we shouldn’t confuse these small churches with the tiny chapels you see everywhere by the side of the road. They are memorials to the victims of road accidents.

Over the centuries, many of the older little churches have become derelict. There are twelve Byzantine churches listed on the hundred most endangered world monuments. While the old churches decay, new ones are being built – thanks to a saint who cured somebody, or because a family prospered. However, there is no saint to help you to pay your taxes and last week all self-employed workers were hit with huge assessments, even people who had gone out of business years ago. If you made a profit of 500 euro you now have to pay double in tax. They say a man in Plomari was so disturbed by his assessment he hanged himself.

Skipping tax assessments has long been a national sport here, which has now got a lot more interesting. Lots of people just ignore this new special assessment - called pereosi forologikon ipotheseon literally ‘the finishing business tax’. If you don’t want to pay it you risk the tax people auditing your books and accounts, and only if you have nothing to hide will your tax payments be small. However, even if you played foul, the fine you will have to pay might be less than your new assessment!

To emerge from its economic crisis the Greek government needs to perform the labours of Hercules. If there was a saint who helped people pay their taxes they would build an awful lot of churches, but sadly, he doesn’t exist. Or, if the Greek premier Papandreou successfully lifts this country out of the dust, he could be canonised as a saint. But for the moment even the building of new churches has stopped.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010


  1. I see u are really a clinical case of obsession and I really get tired and even bored by what you touch a topic but you can't restrain yourself from mentioning the Greek crisis, like you draw pleasure out of it. Actually, maybe you are on tenderhooks since very soon u will be able to colonially rip off a precious piece of land out of the hands of an impoverished family. Vultures are always vultures, esp. when they nest in your courtyard like vipers. But I'm curious how u'll take it with you when ur time comes to meet the Lord.
    Sorry but you risk to end up boring, meaningless...and of course pathetic beyond any cure!!!

  2. sounds like you've got the real psycho problem chum - always looking for a motive that isn't there and making an unfounded accusation. Obsessive behavior can be quite dangerous you know