2017 | Jun
The gradual growth of large cities was considered an obstacle for the development of religious faith and this is why they were characterised as religious deserts where infidelity dominates (MacLeod 2005, 7-8). Despite the secularisation process that took place in western metropolises, and despite or perhaps because of globalisation, religion managed to preserve its presence in public space, although its political power has significantly diminished. Examining the West, Christianity might have lost the dominant place it used to hold, but other religions and new religious movements (NRMs) emerged during the 1960s and onwards. These altered the religious character of western cities to the point that today it is difficult for someone to trace a western society where the dominant religion in the public sphere is only one .
Regardless of talking about secular or post-secular (Baker 2011) cities, religion has kept its place in public space even through “hidden forms” (e.g. the informal prayer houses of Muslims in Athens) (Sakellariou 2011). The dynamic arrival and presence of Islam in the West triggered debates regarding the resurgence or the new visibility of religion (Hjelm 2015), as well as debates about the place of religion in public space, having as a main stake the construction of Islamic mosques. This has caused many juxtapositions and conflicts throughout Europe (Allievi 2009), something that inevitably occurred during the construction of said mosque in Athens. Religion nowadays, because of immigration, is considered to be “on the move” (Oosterbaan 2014, 593) and subject to changes. As a consequence, religion returns to public space in various ways, such as “getting out” of churches and temples (Becci et al. 2013, 8) (see for example the distribution of religious books and leaflets from Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons on the streets of Athens or in the public prayers of Muslims in open space, Photo 1).
Photo 1: Public prayer of Muslims, Kato Patissia, 2013
Source: A Sakellariou
Athens, as a European metropolis, is characterised by multi-religiosity even though this is not very obvious. The purpose of this article is to present through the available information – despite the lack of quantitative data – this religious plurality. As mentioned this plurality is not something new, since various religious communities (e.g. Protestants, Jews, Catholics, and Muslims) existed historically for centuries in the Greek capital, despite the dominance of the Orthodox element.
Map 1: Localisation of religious spaces of different religions and communities in the centre of Athens
The Orthodox dominance
Even one who is not well aware of the Greek reality easily understands that the urban space of Athens is dominated by larger and smaller Orthodox churches (Map 2). In general, the Orthodox element in all of its forms (Greek, Russian, Armenian) (Photos 2, 3, 4) is incorporated in the urban tissue through various ways and constitutes the prevailing religious form that is visible to every observer.
Maps 2: Localisation of religious spaces in the Municipality of Athens
Photos 2, 3 and 4: The Cathedral of Athens, The Russian Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Armenian Church in Neos Kosmos
Source: A Sakellariou
According to the Archdiocese of Athens, 145 parishes, divided among 21 districts, operate within the city region (Maps 2 & 4). These are illustrated on an analytical map followed by contact details . Apart from parish temples, smaller churches are scattered throughout the city, like, for example, the one of Aghia Dynami situated beneath the building of the former Ministry of Education on Mitropoleos Street. In the Archdiocese of Athens seven monasteries and Holy hermitages exist, four of which are within the boundaries of the Municipality, thus constructing a type of in-world asceticism. This is a very interesting fact if one considers that the logic of monasteries and hermitages was to be situated far away from large cities.
Map 3: The 21 districts and the 145 parishes of the Archdiocese of Athens
Map 4: The parishes in the Municipality of Athens
Within the city centre of Athens, on bustling and commercial streets, one can find many historical churches of the Byzantine or the Ottoman era. One such example is Kapnikarea or, as the church’s official name is, “The presentation of the Virgin Mary”, a church with old Christian columns dating back to its initial construction in the 11th century (based on a previously existing church of the 5th century) . This church has faced the risk of demolition twice in history (1834, 1863), but eventually managed to keep its place in the city becoming, in modern times, a landmark and meeting point on the commercial street of Ermou (Photo 5). The church of Aghioi Theodoroi in Klafthmonos square of the same period (11th century), is of particular architectural importance, since, based on continuous archaeological excavations, it was discovered that it has been built over previously existing tombs of the Roman era (Photo 6).
Photos 5 & 6: The church of Kapnikarea and The church of Aghioi Theodoroi
Source: A Sakellariou
In many cases, Christian churches have been built on the relics of ancient temples and holy places. This constitutes a common practice of religions as they started to gain power and dominance on the social and political level. This domination is clearly illustrated in public space where every new religion gradually erases the traces of previous ones. Besides, debates or even violent conflicts over holy places in neighbouring locations, are common in many cases all over the world (Kong and Woods 2016, 20-24). An Athenian example is the small temple of Aghios Ioannis tis Kolonas (St. John of the Column) which is near Omonoia square, on Evripidou Street, and is placed on an ancient sanctum of Asklepios. A distinctive feature of the temple is a column of Korinthian style which protrudes from the church’s roof (Photo 7).
Photo 7: The church of Aghios Ioannis tis Kolonas
Source: A Sakellariou
The Catholic presence
The presence of the Catholic Church in Athens goes back to the era of the fourth crusade and the foundation of the Catholic archdiocese in 1205, even though it is argued that catholic communities existed since the 9th century. Catholics are the second largest Christian community in Athens after the Orthodox. Official statistical data on the number of Catholics are not available. According to unofficial estimates, Greek Catholics are approximately 50,000, though since the 1990s their total number increased because of the arrival of many immigrants (mainly from Poland and the Philippines). As a consequence, today their total number is approximately 250,000 . The vast majority live in Athens and in the broader region of Attica, although, traditionally, communities of Greek Catholics have pre existed in the Ionian Islands and in the Cyclades.
Photo 8: The Catholic Cathedral, Aghios Dionysios
Source: A Sakellariou
Today in the Municipality of Athens one can find six Catholic parish churches and chapels, while the cathedral of Catholics in Athens is the church of Aghios Dionysios on Panepistimiou Street established in 1865 (Photo 8). Every Sunday, but also during the important holidays, the church is full of Catholics from around the world, a typical feature of the transformation of the composition of the catholic population during the last two decades. Like the Orthodox, the Catholic Church has nine holy monasteries in the centre of Athens and some others in the broader region of Attica (Piraeus, Psychico, Kifissia, etc.). The presence of the Catholic Church in public space is documented also through the ownership of its own foundations, cultural centres and schools like the Ursulines and Leonteios. It is worth mentioning the presence of the so-called Greek-rhythm Catholics or Unites, as they are called, who keep full communion with the Vatican, follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church, but keep the traditions and the church calendar of the Orthodox Church. This community draws its origin from the unification of the two Churches (Orthodox and Catholic) after the Ferrara-Florence Council in 1439 and its cathedral is located on Acharnon Street.
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