Greek Orthodox Easter In A Time Of Austerity

At midnight Saturday, Greek Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Christ. Reporter Joanna Kakissis sends us this postcard from Athens and the inner-city cathedral of Saint Lucas.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter at midnight tonight. It's traditionally the biggest holiday in Greece. But there is a cloud over the celebration. Reporter Joanna Kakissis sends us this postcard from Athens and the inner-city cathedral of Saint Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In Greek, the church is called Aghios Loukas. It's Holy Thursday tonight, and the service commemorates the Last Supper. It's so packed here that it's hard to move around. There are little girls with Hello Kitty backpacks, white-haired men with canes, and young couples holding candles. They're all listening to a bearded Orthodox priest mourn the betrayal of Jesus by his apostle, Judas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

KAKISSIS: The altar boys carry a giant wooden cross painted with a crucified Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

KAKISSIS: Priests in dark robes chant and swing gold incense burners. A few people duck outside to get some fresh air. Aghios Loukas is in a neighborhood called Patissia. It used to be a pretty area with neoclassical houses, patisseries and boutiques.

Dingy apartment buildings have long replaced the houses. There are burglaries and muggings. Many of the shops have closed. Like the rest of Greece, Patissia also feels the pain of austerity. A deep recession is now in its fifth year. More than 21 percent of Greeks are jobless.

Nikolas Petropoulos is a 65-year-old retired baker. He's lived here for 30 years. He says austerity measures cut his small pension by 20 percent. He and his wife Elena usually spend Easter at their ancestral village in southern Greece. But this year, they're staying in Athens.

NIKOLAS PETROPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Too many expenses, Nikolas says. Gas is too expensive, tolls are too expensive. And next year, I expect it to be three times worse, since they keep cutting and cutting.

(Foreign language spoken)

PETROPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Did you buy a lamb to roast this year, I ask him. I bought half, Nikolas says. In the past we used to get a whole lamb and roast it with our children. This year, that half has got to last.

The two give some change to a middle-aged man with a disfigured hand. They buy packets of tissues from a young man who's just arrived from Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

KAKISSIS: Then they return to the service. Two tall Boy Scouts help the crowd line up at the altar. People kneel to kiss the giant wooden cross. They will return late Saturday night, just before midnight, carrying decorated candles called lambades. And at the stroke of Sunday, in the muted glow of candlelight, they will sing Christ is Risen - Christos Anesti.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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