Financial calamity changing Greeks
"THEY stole my gold cross that I usually wear round my neck," says Father Christodoulos, the Greek Orthodox priest at St John the Baptist church in Athens. "I left it in front of the altar to go and have a cup of coffee and when I came back it was gone."
The theft of his cross marked the moment in 2009 when Father Christodoulos began to notice how financial calamity was changing Greek society, the rise in poverty and unemployment leading to an increase in crime and violence in the working-class district where he lives and works.
"I used not to be scared to leave the door open," he says, "but five months ago the warden of a church near here was stabbed trying to stop thieves and last Tuesday somebody destroyed the icons in my church."
Greeks are seeing an unprecedented collapse in their standard of living. The official unemployment rate is 16.5 per cent, but the real number is believed to be much higher.
Sitting in Father Christodoulos' office is "Makis" Prothremos Kastikidis, an unemployed shipyard worker who now helps organise the distribution of food by the church. Some 4,000 people lost their jobs when his yard closed three years ago and he says 90 per cent are still jobless. His own situation is becoming desperate. The electricity, water and gas in his apartment have been cut off for non-payment of bills, and, since he has no money, he has reconnected them illegally. "I still can't pay the mortgage," he says. "The future is very dark."
For some in Athens the darkness is already closing in. Beside a park in the centre of Athens, Mary Pini comes six days a week to organise the feeding of a thousand people. The distribution of food, managed and organised by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, the Anglican Church and the Nigerian community, started off in 2009 as a temporary measure.
Ms Pini says that at first she fed immigrants, the homeless and drug addicts, "but now 35 per cent of the people who come here are Greeks, and they are just the sort of people who might be your next-door neighbour".
There is no doubt the people she is feeding are hungry. As they crowd around her snatching at loaves of bread she is taking out of cardboard boxes, Ms Pini shouts at them to get back in line. "I think things will get a lot worse," she says. "They've taxed Greeks too much and they can't survive on the money they get."
Sitting close by was a woman who gives her name as Elena and spoke fluent English with a strong American accent. She said: "I was brought up in New York and in Belgium and my father, who was Greek, later admitted it was the worst mistake in his life when he brought me back here as a young girl." She has lived in Greece for the last 25 years and, until 2009, had a job, but was laid off. Elena worked for a company giving out leaflets in the street advertising shops, but her employers kept not paying her.
She says: "Greece is the worst place in Europe to be unemployed." Mary, her sick husband and their seven-year-old daughter come to the feeding point to be sure of at least one meal a day.
Greeks agree the depression is getting worse and the government is incapable of providing solutions. George Tzogopoulos, an expert on Greek public opinion at the Bodossakis Foundation think tank, says the message from the public is that "the politicians who led Greece into the crisis cannot save the country".
He believes one of the problems is that the Greek media portrays the crisis as the fault of foreigners who are intent on dominating the country. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a favourite target. Conspiracy theories abound, explaining why Greece has been singled out for punishment. "If you look at the Greek media you would not think we were responsible in any way for what happened," he says.
Greek society is in shock. Those who wielded power through money no longer have it in sufficient quantities. The EU has power over Greece, but is unclear how to use it. As the government ineffectively grapples with the crisis, Mr Tzogopoulos sees Greece "as a country that is dissolving".