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Religion in Greece

What you need to know about religious tourism in Greece?

Greek society is characterized by religion, deep faith and devotion to God for two thousand years, maintaining the principles of Orthodoxy. Thousands of Byzantine churches, countless monasteries and places for sacred pilgrimage are some of the elements that awe the visitors of religious tourism in Greece.

Religious tourism is not a trend, it is an alternative form of tourism that stems from the need of believers to experience the majesty of their faith and to come closer to their religion. But what about religious tourism in Greece? Which destinations are flourishing mainly because of the faithful who come to visit the religious monuments of our country?

The connection with the culture of the place and the art is another important reason that encourages tourists to visit the holy sites. The artworks of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine period, the mosaics, frescoes, icons and other religious monuments attract every year the interest of thousands of tourists. Some of the reasons for their interest are the deeper knowledge of traditions, culture and the connection of art to religion.

Greek Orthodox Church

98% of the Greek population belongs to the Orthodox Church, the rest of the Greek population is Muslim (1.3%), Roman Catholic, and Jewish. Only a few countries have such a proportion of Orthodox people. The other country is Russia. The Orthodox Church is the third largest branch of Christianity.

It is king Constantine who was the real founder of Orthodoxy when he was converted to Christianity by a vision of the Cross in the 4th century AD. That is how appeared the church as we know today under the name of “Orthodox Catholic Church”. By the 8th century, different opinions started to grow between the pope in Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople.

To quickly explain the history of Orthodoxy, we have to say that St Paul arrived in Macedonia in 49 AD and began to preach all around Greece; the books of the New Testament were written in Greek during the third century AD.

The differences of opinion opposing both spiritual chiefs were some details of belief such as the celibacy of the clergy or some differences in the way of fasting; The main reason of the disagreement, was over the wording of the Creed: Orthodox Church adhered to the idea of the original Creed which stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father” whereas Rome added, “and the Son”.
The dispute became so intense that in 1054 the pope and the patriarch excommunicated one another, going their own way as the Orthodox Church (Eastern, Greek/Russian) and the Roman Catholic Church: this separation is called the schism.
This profound religious feeling (Orthodoxy is less an institution than a sentiment) in Greece gives birth to some dark points for a country supposed to be European: for example, even if the Constitution guarantees freedom, things are different than they should be.

Orthodoxy is the national religion in Greece and is considered as the only true and right religion by the majority of the Greeks: etymologically, Orthodox means “right belief”.
It is integral to life in Greece, due to the country’s historical past.

Indeed, during the Ottoman rule despites the clerics’ approval and assistance to the local Turkish governors, Orthodox religion was the most important criterion to define Greek nationality; Greek Church tried really hard to preserve Orthodox faith and the feeling of being firstly Christian than Greek upon the oppress Greek people.

Since then the two notions are intimately linked one another. Indeed, the Muslim minority is the only one acknowledged officially by the Greek government though some Roman Catholic, Jewish, Macedonians and Gypsy minorities exist.
Racial discriminations are quite common in Greece especially until 2001; for it is only from then that the Greek identity card stopped showing the civilian’s religious affiliation.
Racism in Greece grew with the start and the augmentation of Albanian immigration.
Even if officially the Greek state and the Orthodox church are supposed to be separated (like every European country) though it is not written in the Constitution, the Church posses an extremely wide power in Greek society.

She interferes in education (the ministry of education is called “ministry of education and religion” and children are obliged to pray all together every morning, before starting classes) and even in politics (every knew voted law that doesn’t suit the Church’s representatives is followed by great disapprovals).
All that for the visitor to understand that Greece, even if things are changing with its Europeanization, is a profoundly religious (more precisely Orthodox) country full of beliefs, traditions and customs entailing lots of prejudices, discriminations and even racism.
Those are reasons why everyone visiting Greece, especially outside Athens, should take these things in consideration if he wants to have an agreeable and problem free stay.

Major Religious Monuments of Greece

Among the most important religious monuments of Greece are:

The Autonomous Monastic State of Mount Athos

Mount Athos, or the so-called “The garden of the Holy Virgin Mary”, is located on the eastern foot of Chalkidiki. It is a self-governing part of the Greek state and the only place in Greece that is allotted to the prayer and worship of God. For centuries the monks have been driven to the monasteries of Mount Athos, to the wild virgin nature and to Mount Athos to embrace it, seeking a peaceful ascetic life away from the mundane. Visitors have the opportunity to experience a completely different lifestyle. The imposing historic monasteries, the impressive cells built in caves or perched on the cliffs, fortresses, canyons and bell towers at the edges of the mountain for more than a thousand years. The visitor feels the awe-inspiring atmosphere and the devotion offered by the place as he enters himself in a completely different way of life, thought and nutrition.

The complex of enormous dark rocks of Meteora captivates every visitor for the geological peculiarity of the landscape. The creation of the geological landscape has been occupied by many geologists but has not yet been clearly interpreted. The wild, inaccessible location of Meteora attracted Christian ascetics. Today it is the second-largest ascetic community after Mount Athos, one of the largest in Orthodox history and one of the most important in Greece. Location, tranquility, stunning rocks, caves and shelters are the ideal retreat for visitors who want to come closer to God or even those who seek peace and tranquility. The first hermits appear to have settled in the caves of Meteora in the 11th century, while in the 14th century Saint Athanasios the Meteorite founded the monastery of Meteora and from them also took their name Meteora. The monasteries were built at a height of 400 meters and above, which often caused great problems for the monks. To solve the problem they built ladders and used ropes and pulleys to create a passage from one monastery to another. At the beginning of the 20th-century staircases and tunnels were carved on the rocks, making the monasteries accessible from the neighboring plateau, so the traditional method of communication and refueling of the monasteries with ladles, ropes, pulleys, and baskets was gradually abandoned.

Meteora Monasteries

  • Varlaam
  • Stephen’s
  • Agios Nikolaos Anapassa
  • Rousanou
  • Holy Trinity
  • Great Meteora

Cave of the Apocalypse is located on the island of Patmos in the area of Skala. It is considered the point where the Apostle John saw the divine vision and wrote the 27th and the last book of the New Testament the “Revelation” in 95 AD. In this cave, God was revealed to John by pressing on the ground, so the place is considered to be the Holy site and is often called the Jerusalem of the Mediterranean. The monastery, which embraced the cave, consists of the church of Agia Anna (right next to the cave) and Agios Nikolaos (above the cave), as well as a central area that reminds of a traditional room of Chora.

Byzantine monastic center of Papi, Rodopi

The Papikion Mountain of Rhodope was a famous monastic center from the 11th to the 15th century AD, similar to Mount Athos. According to historical testimonies, Papikion seems to have experienced its greatest prosperity in the 11th-12th century AD. Since the 13th century, however, there has been a decisive downturn in the life of the monastic center, which has reached a complete decline in the late 14th century. Excavations and archaeological finds reveal that at the beginning of the 13th century, some monasteries of Papiki suffered terrible destruction from fires, resulting in the burning of large parts of them, which ceased to be used and thus significantly reduced its original size. In addition, the decline of Papikion is largely due to the civil wars and dynastic disputes between Andronikos II and Andronikos III (1321-1328) and Anna Palaiologina and John S. Kantakouzenos (1341-1347), which were conducted exclusively in the area of Thrace. Finally, the abolition of Byzantine domination in the region by the Ottomans (1362), although not the decisive factor in the decline of monasticism at Papiki, shortened the time of operation of the few monasteries that had survived until then. However, even in the last Byzantine centuries, it is not uncommon to refer to Papikion, which comes mainly from historical works and the lives of saints.

The areas where St. Paul traveled

One of the most important routes of religious interest in Greece is the “Steps of the Apostle Paul”. Paul, although not part of the close circle of the 12 disciples of Christ, is an important form of the Christian religion. He shared Christianity like no one else, and for this reason, he was called the “Apostle of the Nations”.

As part of his travels to spread Christianity, the Apostle Paul visited Greece, preaching the Gospel and teaching the work of Jesus. The journey of Apostle Paul to Greece is a journey that is today not only the devout believer but also anyone who loves history. The “Apostle Paul’s Steps” pass through all the places the Apostle taught and are an ideal combination of pilgrimage and sightseeing in some of the most beautiful parts of Greece.

Stations of Apostle Paul's course in Greece:

  • Samothraki
  • Kavala (Trace)
  • Philippi
  • Amphipolis-Apollonia

Sacred spaces and churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Tinos

Tinos is identified with the Virgin Mary. The island of Cyclades is also recognized as a sanctuary since 1971 and every year many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit it. Tinos has about 1300 churches and country churches. Orthodox or Catholic, cathedrals or small churches, stand out for their simplicity and elegance and reflect the deep need of the locals for personal contact with the Divine.

The pilgrimage to the Holy Temple of the Evangelistria of Tinos (Panagia Tinos) is the most important orthodox pilgrimage in Greece and one of the best known throughout the world. The Sacred Church of Evangelistria was built at the site of the icon of the Annunciation, following the vision of the Pelagian Monk.

Important Monasteries in Greece

  • Agios Nikolaos, Metsovo
  • Panagia Soumela, Veria
  • Panagia Olympiota, Elassona
  • St Louis, Viotia
  • Mega Cave, Kalavrita
  • Panagia Chozoviotissa, Amorgos
  • Holy Meteora Monastery
  • Monastery of Toplou or Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani, Crete
  • Monastery of Dafni, Athens
  • Panagia Archangeliotissa, Xanthi
  • Archangel Michael Panormitis, Symi
  • Nea Moni, Chios

Churches worth visiting in Greece

  • Panagia Kosmosoteira, Feres, Evros
  • Agios Dimitrios, Thessaloniki
  • Panagia Tinos, Tinos
  • Agios Konstantinos and Eleni, Volos
  • Our Lady of Blacherna, Corfu
  • Panagia Paregoritissa, Arta
  • Evangelismos Theotokou, Amfissa