Before Ottoman rule, Greece was part of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The civil and religious capital of the Roman Empire was moved to New Rome or Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) by Constantine the Great in the 4th century. From this time onwards, the Orthodox Christian faith has flourished and spread throughout Eastern Europe. Even under Turkish rule and repeated attempts at conversion by Jesuits and Protestants, Orthodox Christianity survived and flourished.
The role of the Orthodox Church in maintaining Greek ethnic and cultural identity during the 400 years of Ottoman rule has strengthened the bond between religion and government. Most Greeks, whether personally religious or not, revere and respect the Orthodox Christian faith, attend church and major feast days, and are emotionally attached to Orthodox Christianity as their "national" religion.
Reflecting this, the Greek Constitution on the one hand guarantees absolute freedom of religion while, on the other hand, it defines the "prevailing religion" of Greece as the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ. In practice, the Orthodox Church as well as the secular state approve jointly any activities related to the building of churches and the Church has succesfully blocked the building of places of worship for other religions in Athens; priests receive state salaries; the President of the Republic takes an oath on the Bible; and Orthodox Christianity is given privileged place in religious studies in primary education. The Church has been allowed to keep its large portfolio of financial assests excempt from taxation and fiscal auditing.
Starting in January 2005, a series of highly publicised corruption scandals involving high rank church officials have led to many calls by secular Greeks for the complete separation of Church from State and greater control of Church assets.
The majority of Greeks (95 to 98%) have at least nominal membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church, although religious observance has declined in recent years. Greek Muslims make up about 1.3% of the population, and live mainly in Thrace. Greece has some Roman Catholics: mainly in the Cyclades islands of Syros, Paros and Naxos; some Protestants and some Jews, mainly in Thessaloniki. Some groups in Greece have started an attempt to reconstruct Hellênismos, the old Greek pagan religion. See also: Greek Orthodox Church.
One small part of Greece, Mount Athos, is recognised by the Greek constitution as an autonomous monastic republic the foreign relations of which, however, remain the prerogative of the Greek state.
Spiritually, Mount Athos is under the Patriarchate of Constantinople and is therefore in communion with all the monasteries on Mount Athos and with the Orthodox Church based in various countries. Only one monastery has recently broken away and has formed a completely independent schism on the Holy Mountain -- Esphygmenou Monastery. Esphygmenou is composed of 117 Zealot monks who stubornly oppose the head of the Church and do not commemorate him any more. They believe that they are the last remaining true Christians in the world and that Orthodoxy has been corrupted by having dialogue with other faiths and object to the lifting of the anathemas against the Roman catholic Church in the 1960's by Patriarch Athenagoras.
Article by Wikipedia (reprinted under GFDL). Last updated: July 26, 2013.