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Police respond as parishioners fight at Utah Greek church

Published January 25, 2014 3:24 pm

Holladay • Sunday's incident is latest in seething dispute over firing priests or reducing their pay.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Police were called to a fight Sunday at a service at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Holladay.

A long-running church dispute led to the fight, said Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal. Officers are investigating allegations of assault, Hoyal said. No one has been arrested and no one was injured in the fight.

In December, the parish council told Prophet Elias Rev. Michael Kouremetis it had eliminated his position in the budget. Kouremetis refused to leave his post at the church, and a group of members is trying to pay for his salary with donations.

That group — known as Protect Our Clergy — sent a letter to all church members Thursday, asserting the fight began near the end of the service, when Kouremetis told parishioners that he would keep his hours at the church every day, despite the parish council's announcement that church operations would be cut back.

One man, identified in a church email as a member of the parish council, "called out in opposition," Hoyal said. Another church member began arguing with that man.

The dispute moved to an adjacent room, called the narthex.

"There was a little pushing and shoving, and threats were made," Hoyal said.

The altercation is only the latest dust-up in a financial dispute that has pitted the council against the priests and members against one another. In July, the council planned to cut pay to its three priests by 40 percent. The Greek Orthodox regional authority in Denver intervened, ordering the priests to stop almost all services until the pay was restored. The council called a "special parish assembly," where members voted narrowly — 220-215 — to restore the priests' full salaries but work to eliminate one of the three positions.

Two days before the new year, the council told Kouremetis his position was terminated, while the Rev. Matthew Gilbert at Holy Trinity and roving Rev. Elias Koucos were kept on the payroll.

In its email sent Wednesday to all church members in the Salt Lake Valley, the parish council characterized Sunday's fight as an "assault" on the parish council member.

"We have filed a formal report with the local authorities and our Hierarchs," the council wrote. "At this time we ask everyone to refrain from altercations in our houses of worship."

In its response, the group Protect Our Clergy wrote that the decision to call police was an "overreaction" by a member who favors the council and is "anti-clergy." It also denounced the parish council's plan to ask police in plainclothes to provide security for the coming Sunday's services.

"This is surely an overreaction designed to bring more unnecessary conflict and embarrassment to our church," the letter states.

Council president Dimitrios Tsagaris said the request for police is "just a precaution."

"I don't expect anything to happen," he said. "Everybody is going to come to church. It's not a big deal. There were just some hot tempers and that's about it."

ealberty@sltrib.com

Twitter: @erinalberty