Orthodox Greeks fear Popish plots: Leonard Doyle discovers that conspiracy theories about the Vatican's dark designs are alive and well in the cafes of Athens

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TUCKED away in a courtyard in the Monastiraki district of central Athens, the Avissinia restaurant has a decadent end-of-era feel to it. Tables and chairs are put out in the afternoon, when the flea market packs up for the day.

In this stage-like setting, with old bits of furniture stacked around, the radical-chic of Athens gather to drink and listen to mournful rembetika music, the blues of the Balkans with its deep Byzantine roots. On election eve a singer belted out protest songs telling of hardship and slum living, while waiters brought out trays of Czech pilsner and cooked snails.

Thanks to an edict banning politics by Katie Touros, the owner, the Avissinia provided a welcome respite from the election frenzy gripping the city. Instead of party politics talk reverted to conspiracy theories, the great staple of Balkan conversations.

This time, however, it was not about big-power plots against Greece's ally, Serbia, but a description of how the Vatican was working to undermine Greek interests.

The Turkish threat, yes. But the Vatican? 'Yes, of course,' my companion, a retired Greek ambassador, explained. The Vatican was scheming to undermine Greek interests by weakening the 300-million-strong Eastern Orthodox Church.

He wove a fantastic tapestry of religious intrigue directed from Rome. Its objective was the eclipse of independent Orthodoxy and its replacement by the Uniate Church (Greek Rite Catholics), which was under Vatican authority, he said.

There are strong links between the Greek Church and the ultra-nationalist positions the country has taken over neighbouring Macedonia and Albania. Policies are increasingly putting the country at odds with the West, which cannot understand Greece's obduracy in siding with Serbia and refusing to recognise the name Macedonia.

The links between religion and nationalism are everywhere in Greece, and have their roots in the role the Church played defending Greek culture under hundreds of years of Ottoman domination. To many nationalists it is axiomatic that anyone who is not Orthodox is not completely Greek and is therefore open to being manipulated by the country's enemies. Even though some 97 per cent of the population are Orthodox Christians, some extremists want to have 'heretics' purged from the media.

Some of the pressure comes from Mount Athos, the centre of Orthodox monasticism where 1,500 monks, many Serbs, Russians and Romanians among them, are said to exert a powerful influence. But the view that Greece and Orthodoxy are under threat is not confined to clerics.

The most widely-travelled businessman can tell hair-raising tails of the Vatican's malign, anti-Hellenic influence. It is accused of aggressively appointing new bishops in Russia, Ukraine, Albania and Macedonia and pouring millions of dollars into acquiring Orthodox churches shut by the Communists.

The fact that Uniate priests are bearded and black-robed and look much like Orthodox priests is confirmation to many Greeks of the underhand methods used by the Vatican. Even Italian aid to Albania is seen as a Popish plot to bring Tirana under Catholic influence.

The revival of the Eastern Orthodox Church since the fall of Communism is viewed as vital to Greece's future security and economic well-being. Far more than old-fashioned rivalry between the two surviving halves of the original Christian Church - one led by the Head of World Orthodoxy in Constantinople (as Greeks still call Istanbul), the other by the Pope in Rome - the actions of the Vatican are seen as striking at the heart of Greek national interests. This is because Orthodoxy gives Athens disproportionate influence in Russia and much of Eastern Europe and access to potentially huge markets.