ATHENS - Ready or not, Greece is opening back up. But it is not happening all at once, as the government plans to lift coronavirus restrictions in phases, keeping a ban on religious services to contain new outbreaks of COVID. The plan has infuriated the Greek Orthodox Church and it is now demanding preference over businesses like hair and nail salons.
The standoff comes as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announces a gradual easing of draconian lockdown measures imposed here since early March.
Government officials tell VOA, schools and small-size businesses will be among the first to open next week. Church doors will also be unlocked but only to allow followers to enter and pray on their own, not in large numbers and not for religious services.
The country's archbishop has sent a stern letter to the prime minister, pressing him to reconsider.
But on Tuesday, the Church's spokesperson, the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos, accused the government of staging what he called a coup against the country’s religious authority.
“What do they really think the Church is?” he asked in front of reporters Tuesday. “Do they consider it like any other supermarket or union or nail and hair salon?”
The Church, he says, has been a guiding force for the nation and part of Greek tradition for more than 200 years.
It's unlikely the prime minister will back down from his plans, aides say.
The country's senior council of prelates, meantime, is scheduling a crisis meeting later this week. It wants to see churches open across the nation soon, in order hold belated Easter services in May - services it has suspended as part of nationwide efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The controversy is fueling a debate in Greece on whether the state should reconsider its close ties with the Greek Orthodox Church. Commentator Nikos Vlavianos, known for his left-wing views, argues for a separation.
He calls this type of intervention absurd and says and it reminds the world that, in the 21st Century, church and state are not separated in Greece.
About 90 percent of Greeks identify as Orthodox Christians, although it is unclear how many of them regularly attend church.
The Orthodox Church is deeply intertwined with the society of Greece, predating the Greek state by some 1,500 years.
Throughout history, attempts to separate the two have met resistance, with many, many Greeks citing the Church’s key role in preserving the Orthodox faith during 400 years of Ottoman rule.