Illustration by George Gousis
This article originally appeared on VICE Greece
It's six in the afternoon on a bitterly cold November day. I'm walking around a working class district of Athens, where the financial crisis has hit locals hard and in every way. I'm on my way to my nearest office of the Assembly of the Greeks, a new political organisation that could better be described as a cult. The Assembly and its founder, Artemis Sorras, claim that they have the means to end the financial crisis by paying off the enormous public debt of the country, and the personal debt of its people. The Assembly's strategy for it is quite simple – the owner and the organisation claim to have billions of dollars, that they're ready to spend on relieving Greece's debt.
When I heard about the Assembly of the Greeks, I was immediately fascinated. I wanted to find out how they've convinced their thousands of followers that a political organisation could, in fact, pay billions in debts, without asking for anything in return. And perhaps most importantly, I wanted to find out if that money really exists. If so, where is it coming from? If not, how do they keep up appearances? So I decided to become a member of the Assembly of the Greeks, visiting the offices about three times a week for two months – from early November 2016 to early January 2017.
Now that it's late November and I've attended a couple of debates and talks at the headquarters – the dress code is always blue and white, the colours of the Greek flag – I'm finally having my big day. I am about to become an official member by taking the "Oath of the Warrior" in front of more senior members of the organisation.
When come in, I see the members I've met before, sitting around the office space. Antigone, the 60-year-old director of the office I go to, is watching a video on the dusty screen of her pretty old school desktop. Other members are talking among themselves, while a girl – it would be the first and last time I see her – is reading a poster citing the principles of the Assembly, in a font that's meant to look ancient.
I make a round greeting everyone. Aside from wanting to have their debts paid, I've gathered from my earlier talks with other members that they're all here for one of a few reasons: Some of them became a member out of nostalgic nationalism – they love the Greek myths and Twelve Gods, they miss the glory of the ancient Greeks. "We have to retaliate against the Europe Union, just like Alexander the Great retaliated against the Persians," one of them told me once. Others are here because they're susceptible to conspiracy theories. One of the theories Artemis Sorras has come up with is that Greeks are the only real human beings, while the rest of humanity are aliens who came to our planet to genetically mix with Greeks and destroy us. Other members are right-wing voters who left the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party because they felt they went too far. Generally, it's fair to say that the Assembly's members aren't the kind of people I usually hang out with.
But now I'm one of them, and it's time for my initiation. "Stand up straight. Keep your body straight," Antigone orders me ahead of the ritual, pointing to the exact spot where I'm supposed to stand. "You can't move during the recital. I hope you've turned off your phone." She grabs my hand. "Repeat every sentence I read out loud. You need to focus. If you make a mistake, we'll have to take it from the top." I stand perfectly still – I really don't want to disappoint her.
"After reciting the oath, you'll drink a special kind of solution that we've brought for you. If you break your oath, the liquid will burn you from the inside and the Furies will hound you," she claims. I quietly nod. After making sure that she's all set, Antigone begins to recite every line of the oath posted on the wall behind me, in a pompous tone: "I pledge myself and devote myself to the logos of the unity of the all-merciful Lord of Light." I repeat what she's saying. I repeat the second and the third line. Antigone cuts off each sentence brusquely, in an attempt to give her words a bit more gravitas. The final line of the oath, misspelt on the wall, refers to the punishment for members who violate the organisation's principles and values – "If I break my oath, the entire cellular structure of my body will be reduced to its constituent parts."
Antigone hands me a glass, filled with what seems like water. I drink from it. "You are now worthy," she exclaims. The other members kiss me on both cheeks and ask me for my personal details. "You should recommend us to your friends," Antigone tells me.
I'm officially in with the cool kids.
Artemis Sorras, our financial saviour in times of crisis
Walking around Athens, you can't miss signs of the fact that the country has been in the midst of a financial crisis for eight years – and there's no end in sight, even after three bailout programs and capital controls. People are begging for money at every corner of the city, there are homeless people sleeping everywhere and many stores are boarded up. But the largest and hardest part of the crisis isn't visible. People are unable to pay their taxes and their bills, homes are being foreclosed and Greeks are still dealing with the highest unemployment rate in Europe. Many are struggling to get by – and exhausted and frustrated as they are, they're susceptible to anyone claiming an ability to make it all go away.
Now, imagine you're in that state and Artemis Sorras swings by and tells you he can get you out of all of this by paying your debts – the ones that lost you your house, your savings, your quality of life. That's what Sorras and his Assembly of Greeks claim. Follow them, and your debts will be paid.
It sounds crazy, but a growing number of Greeks believe him. Often, they think they have no alternative. There are now more than 200 offices of the organisation all over Greece and abroad (in places with large immigrant Greek populations). According to documents given to VICE by a former member of the organisation, there are about 5,000 sworn-in members, who form the core of the Assembly. The total number of members is estimated to be well over 12,000. All members pay an initial fee of €20 (£17) and then a monthly fee of €5 (£4). In return, their debts will supposedly be paid off. The members who go through the initiation and are sworn in get a say in the Assembly's policies – one condition is that those members all have to be born Greek.
How Artemis Sorras came to save the Greek people
Artemis Sorras appeared on the scene as a financial saviour quite suddenly, in 2012. Back then, he went on TV and announced that he was ready to give the Greek State $600 billion, so that it could pay off its debts and end austerity policies. He formed the Assembly of the Greeks in 2015, with the promise of not just the $600 billion that would save Greece, but also saying that he was prepared to use his self-claimed total fortune of $145 trillion to relieve members' personal debt. That's 145 with 12 zeros, if you're interested – and it happens to be almost 1,700 times Bill Gates's net worth.
Sorras and his Assembly of the Greeks claimed that they had offered their funds to the Greek authorities, to pay off debts and start a new infrastructure programme. When the Ministry of Finance received Mr. Sorras's written statement offering the money, it asked the central Bank of Greece to investigate if the Assembly really did have accounts with these absurd amounts of money on them. When asked by VICE, the Bank of Greece confirmed to VICE that those accounts never existed.
So Greek authorities never took Sorras and his claims seriously, and they never expected anyone else would either. During that time Greek TV channels would invite him on their shows and make fun of him during those broadcasts, just for ratings. That approach gave Sorras the opportunity to really take on the role of an outcast, an outsider.
In May of 2014, Sorras sent a proposal to the Greek government, suggesting he'd buy to stocks of the four largest Greek banks. At that point, the Greek state had borrowed billions from creditors to save these banks, and Sorras claimed he had the way to buy all of them. Because it was such a preposterous suggestion, Sorras didn't get a response to his offer – not from the government, nor from the central Bank of Greece. Sorras had gained some followers by this time, and to them he claimed that this silence was proof that the Greek political system was corrupt and that people working for it are puppets for international – and, in his own words, "Jewish" – interests.
Slowly, by sticking to his message, Artemis Sorras gained support and built a cult around him – a cult of people who would rather believe him than face the reality of their own lives.
Sorras' own reality is that he was born in a small village near Patra, a Greek city in the Peloponnese. His family was poor and he dropped out of school at the age of 10 to help his family make ends meet. Years later, he started trading in cars, and used that company to scam people. His scheme wasn't very complex – he would just sell the same car to several people, without ever delivering. Today, a string of people have filed lawsuits against him, including his former lawyer and friend, Fotis Lepidas. Sorras never seemed to have really made a lot of money. In his fiscal statement made to the tax authorities in 2014, he states he earns about €20,000 (£17,000) per year. His wife and him are receiving benefits in order to raise their child.
"This is for us, for the Greek people."
A logical question to all of this would be – if he claims he has all that money, how does he prove it to his followers? That's what I set out to find out. During a members' meeting, I asked Antigone directly whether or not the organisation had any money. She flipped through some papers and handed them over to me, saying that the most important things I needed to know were in there.
Those papers stated that Artemis Sorras had deposited $600 billion in the name of Greece – which is actually officially called the Hellenic Republic and is not an entity with a bank account you can just transfer money to. I also read in those "documents" that Sorras has $115,5 trillion deposited in Greek bank accounts, and owns 40 stocks in the Banque d'Orient – with each stock at an estimated worth of $678 billion. The Banque d'Orient was sold and closed about 80 years ago. You can still buy Banque d'Orient stocks, but they're nothing more than a souvenir now – you can buy them on eBay for €95. The photo on eBay is exactly the same Mr. Sorras uses to illustrate the information that he has 40 stocks – those stocks he claims are worth $678 billion.
Antigone also pointed to a poster on the wall. She told me that it was an official document released by the World Bank – which it clearly wasn't. The poster boasted the logos of dozens of international institutions – like the World Bank and the United Nations – and accompanying texts claiming Sorras's bank accounts were legitimate. "This is for us, for the Greek people", Antigone said. "The document has also been signed by Greek politicians, verifying the existence of the money."
The poster frankly had a wildly confusing layout and was riddled with spelling mistakes. On it, the claim that Sorras has $115 trillion was "confirmed" by signatures of, among others, Pope Benedict XVI, the former president of the Hellenic Republic and a Greek representative of the United Nations. Antigone handed me some more "proof" of their claims. One document allegedly came from the World Bank, which contained numerous pages written in Filipino. The other was said to come from the United Nations, which was consistently referred to as "The United Nation Organisation" in the document. This all just to say – those documents didn't look very convincing. But they are treated like the Gospel within the Assembly – during my weeks there, no one openly questioned them.
Just to be absolutely sure, I contacted representatives of the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as the office of the former president mentioned on the poster, Karolos Papoulias, to ask them about the documents. All denied being in any way connected to Sorras' documents or The Assembly of the Greeks. Fotis Lepidas, who worked as Sorras' lawyer for years, told me: "Sorras is lying when he claims to have all that money. The only thing he does is recruit new members. Assembly members pay an initial subscription fee of €20 and a monthly subscription fee of €5. There are about 12,000 members, so he's got tens of thousands of euros coming in every month."
Greece's Chief Prosecutor for Financial Crimes recently investigated Sorras' claims and found that the bank accounts which Sorras claims hold $115,5 trillion don't exist. I did some hard-hitting research myself by just filling in the account numbers on the websites of the Greek banks they were supposedly with. The number of digits in the account numbers isn't even the correct number for the banks they're accredited to.
For just €21, any debt will be paid
One Saturday morning in December, I walked in the offices of the Assembly and found Katerina, one of the more active members, deep in conversation with a Bulgarian immigrant worker I'd never seen before. They were watching a clip on YouTube in which a journalist was asking Artemis Sorras about the Assembly's so-called "out-of-court statements". Those statements are the Assembly's core business – members pay an additional €21 on top of their introduction fee and their monthly fee, after which they can send a written statement to the Greek state and their banks, claiming that the money they owe will be paid by Sorras. According to the Assembly, a member can stop paying off their debts to tax offices and banks from that point onwards. In the statements, members write down the account numbers of Sorras's bank accounts that will pay off their debts – those same accounts that we established don't exist.
I asked Katerina about it. "Thanks to those funds, you can pay off any debts you have with your bank, with social security services – even taxes," she told me. I told her I wasn't really in debt. "You're wrong, all Greeks are in debt," she said. "Every Greek citizen is burdened with a share of the national debt. That's why each of us is assigned a Tax Identification Number on the day we're born. This is the government's way of exercising complete control over us. You can get rid of your share of the debt by sending a statement to the Ministry of Finance, mentioning the Assembly's account numbers. For €21, you're set." According to an information folder from the Assembly, over 5,500 members have signed those statements. That would mean members so far paid Sorras roughly €115,000 (close to £100,000) for the privilege.
Banks and tax authorities have always denied that Mr. Sorras has paid off the debts of any of the Assembly's members. During my visits to the Assembly offices, I regularly heard members voice their worry about their banks not settling their debts. Leaders of the Assembly would respond to those concerns by telling their members to keep their faith and to just not pick up when the debt collectors called. Another tactic was to mock complaining members for failing to understand something so simple. I've heard members ask if the organisation could offer legal aid if the bank would take their case to court, but Antigone's response to those questions was clear: "Our lawyer can advise you, but they can't take any cases. Paying some legal costs will be nothing compared to the debts you don't have to pay anymore." She would stress that the statements to the banks were made on the members' own risk.
"All of our Prime Ministers have been Jews"
Another tactic the Assembly used to rebuke members' worries about their debts not being paid off, was to claim that the Greek authorities wouldn't accept Sorras' money, because as one core member said "the government is corrupt and run by Jews". Their Anti-Semitism was a theme of many conversations and speeches and goes hand in hand with their nationalism – I've heard Assembly members accuse the Greek Orthodox Church of treason, for not sticking to Greek gods but believing in a Jewish one.
In one of my early visits, I was sat down to watch a video with the other newcomers – it was a video of Sorras spouting conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia. The message in short was: Greece is ruled by Jews, only pure Greeks are human beings and anyone else is out to get us. There are several videos filled with anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric that new members are supposed to watch, and afterwards discuss with one one of the senior members.
When I later asked Antigone why she believes the state is withholding money from its people, she gave a swift response: "Because they're traitors and Jews," she said. "All of our Prime Ministers have been Jews." She showed me another "document" that was supposed to unveil the real Jewish names of former Prime Ministers. When contacted by VICE, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece stated that the signature of their former president, Moses Konstantinis, had been photoshopped and used illegally.
Aside from the racism, antisemitism and homophobia there were other theories discussed that were of the run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory/cult material – the idea that only people with pure Greek DNA should be allowed to run the country, that vaccines come from foreigners who are trying to destroy us and give us cancer, that refugees are actually illegal immigrants who rip their documents apart in Turkey and come to Greece, intent on making it an Islamic state.
Another accepted truth was that our tap water was poisoned to keep us sedated. "Can it be a coincidence that Greeks, who used to be a proud and fierce people, are now completely stupefied?" Antigone asked us once. And last but not least, the Assembly believed that part of Sorras' fortune came from selling ancient space technology from the God Apollo to Barack Obama, for the betterment of the US space missions.
There were other aspects about The Assembly of the Greeks that were pretty standard for cults – how difficult it was to leave them, for example. A former Assembly member told VICE that, "shortly after I took the oath and got to help with policy and saw how things worked, I realised it was all bullshit – that we were deceiving people. But when I decided to leave, I was threatened by other members that they would beat me to a pulp if I talked about the workings of the organisation. One day, I was walking outside of the Assembly's offices when a member came out and started beating me up in the middle of the street." On another occasion, members of the Assembly left axes and other sharp object outside his house, in an attempt to intimidate him. Another time, he says, he was hit with a car and had to be hospitalised.
One evening in January, a lady stopped by the Assembly offices. She had signed the statements to all the institutions she owed money – but none of them had accepted her statements or Sorras' claims. She was still very much in debt. Katerina and Antigone told her the usual story – that she had to have faith, or that she might have done something wrong, when the lady burst into tears. She said, the bank kept calling her because she hadn't made a payment in a while. Before she took off, she threatened to take the Assembly to court if they turned out to be frauds – she wasn't going to take their excuses anymore, she said. After she left, the remaining members sighed. "The amount of crap we have to put up with every day," one middle-aged guy exclaimed. "If Artemis Sorras was a fraud, they would have locked him up in jail by now."
That was my last time with the Assembly. I had seen enough.
On Friday the 17th of March – two months after I left the Assembly of the Greeks – a court in Patras convicted Artemis Sorras and his wife in absentia to eight years in prison without parole for money embezzlement. Sorras was sued by his former lawyer Fotis Lepidas, who I spoke to for this piece, for embezzling €50,000.
The next day, Sorras published a 20 minute long video, where he talks about the lawsuit from Lepidas, attacks at the judiciary system and swears that he will never surrender. He also calls on Greeks to resist and continue their fight against the corrupt status quo and the justice system. Artemis Sorras is currently on the run from Greek authorities.