Greeks began voting in a referendum Sunday to decide whether they should stay in the euro zone risking severe austerity in return for an international bailout. Leaders of the influential Orthodox Church have urged a "yes" vote, going against the nation's first openly atheist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
"On Sunday we should all send a message of democracy and dignity to the world," Tsipras, an atheist unlike his predecessors, told tens of thousands of citizens, encouraging them to vote "no." according to Reuters. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has said he will step down if the "yes" vote wins.
However, leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which a majority of the citizens have affiliation, have called for a "yes" vote, to remain in the euro zone.
The referendum was taking place a week after Greece announced it was closing its banks as it had failed to repay the IMF after the end of its bailout program.
If the nation decides to quit the euro zone, Greece could face a major financial crisis, analysts have said. Greece owes billions of euros to the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and 18 euro-zone countries.
Polls show voters are split 50-50 on whether to agree to the bailout.
"We have to promise our children a Greece of growth and progress. A Greece that will move on with self confidence and safety, flesh of the flesh of the hard core of the common European family," the head of the Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos II, said in a statement about the referendum.
"The times we are living in are maybe the most crucial ones for our Nation since after World War Two," the archbishop added. "It's a time of responsibility for everyone. For every institution in the country, for the political parties, the church, for each and every Greek. We are all united by the love for our country. The anxiety for its present and its future. Nothing separates us. That is why we must not allow the poison of division contaminate our souls. It will be a crime burdening the next generations."
Last Sunday, Orthodox Church's influential Metropolitan Anthems of Thessaloniki told the congregants how he would vote, tacitly urging the members to follow suit, according to The Pappas Post. He said the congregation was free to vote as they wish, but he would "vote for Europe."
Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, told The Huffington Post there are two reasons why the Greek Orthodox Church is opposing the government.
"The Church of Greece sees Orthodoxy as part of the European fabric and history and understands Greece to be an important part of the European project," Prodromou was quoted as saying, explaining that it is feared that a "no" vote could result in Greece's exit from Europe.
The Church, which has helped the Greek society at the time of suffering due to the austerity measures in the recent years, also fears that a "no" vote would worsen the humanitarian crisis.
Not all Orthodox priests are with the upper levels of the Church's hierarchy that have advocated for a "yes" vote, but the voice of the latter is influential. And a "yes" vote could cost the atheist prime minister his office.
The first official projection of the result is expected later on Sunday.