Atheist Greek PM in tense meeting with Russian patriarch
Greece's avowedly atheist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras held a tense meeting with the powerful head of Russia's Orthodox Church on Thursday as he wrapped up a trip aimed at closer relations with Moscow.
Tsipras greeted Patriarch Kirill, who enjoys a close relationship with Russian strongman President Vladimir Putin, with a strained smile at his official monastery residence following a two-day Kremlin charm offensive.
Kirill congratulated Tsipras on his January, but swiftly pressed the premier to take on a moral as well as political role in national life.
“I hope that your government will do all it can to preserve the spiritual foundations and morality of your people,” the patriarch said.
“Don’t forget that being Christian is not a political stance,” he added, saying that only with a “spiritual base” could a country hope for true social justice.
A clearly exasperated Tsipras, whose hard-left government has promised to take on the cause of Greece’s austerity-hit workforce, said that he was glad the religious leader had “taken the time do some research on my personal convictions.”
Tsipras is an avowed atheist — when he was sworn in as premier in January, he did so in a civil rather than a religious ceremony, a first in a country where, like Russia, the Christian Orthodox church and the state are closely intertwined.
Greece and Russia are both home to devout Orthodox Christian populations, whose ecclesiastical hierarchies share close historical ties.
Despite the strained exchanges however, the pair were able to find some common ground.
Tsipras pointed to a mutual value of tolerance and a drive for greater social solidarity in society, looking characteristically laid back in contrast with the solemn patriarch.
The meeting of less than an hour also saw the pair agree on the need to put an end to the EU-imposed sanctions that have badly hit Russia’s economy.
Tsipras has softened his stance towards the Church in recent months, paying a visit to the ancient monastic community at Greece’s Mount Athos.