Christmas in Jail, on Mount Athos

Under arrest in Greece, the abbot of the most important monastery of the holy mountain. The patriarch of Moscow calls for his release. The patriarch of Constantinople is silent. The rivalry between the two rekindled by the voyage in Russia of a relic of the Virgin Mary

by Sandro Magister

 ROME, January 2, 2012 – A bitter Christmas on Mount Athos. Regular readers of http://www.chiesa are familiar with the holy mountain, since every year, on Pentecost, this site presents this account:

 Pentecost on Mount Athos

They know that on Mount Athos, in the Great Lavra, the relic of the belt of the Virgin Mary is kept.

They know that at Vatopedi, the most illustrious of the twenty monasteries, there is a hegumen, an abbot, named Ephraim, who for years has been the strongest and most authoritative personality of all Athos.

Hegumen Ephraim was in Russia last December, bringing with him the relic of the Virgin’s belt. And the faithful came flocking to venerate it not by the thousands, but by the millions – some say three, some five – to the various cities where the relic stopped.

But at his return to Athos, on December 24 – Christmas Eve on the Latin calendar, which is 13 days ahead of the calendar of the holy mountain – the Greek police knocked on the door of the monastery of Vatopedi, asked for Hegumen Ephraim, and arrested him.

Since Tuesday, December 27, Hegumen Ephraim has been in a Greek jail, in spite of his advanced age and precarious health. The prosecutor accuses him of being implicated in an illegal sale of land, on the part of his monastery, to the detriment of the Greek state.

The investigation had been underway since 2008, and seemed routine. But in recent days it suddenly crystallized in this unprecedented arrest, in a country in which the Orthodox Christian religion has a privileged status, with even more pronounced autonomy for Mount Athos.

From Moscow, the metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, second in command of the Russian Orthodox Church and its foreign minister, reacted with a blistering interview with the agency Interfax.

Hegumen Ephraim – Hilarion said – is such a prominent and respected figure all over the world, his zeal in giving vitality to the monasticism of Athos is so impressive and recognized by all, that his arrest cannot be anything other than “a hostile attack on the monks of Athos and on the whole Orthodox Church”:

 Metropolitan Hilarion: “A hostile attack against Athonite monks and Orthodoxy”

Again from Moscow, Patriarch Kirill sent a message to the president of the Greek republic, Karolos Papoulias, to express the sadness of “millions of believers of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries” at the news of the arrest of such an illustrious monk, “precisely in the days in which the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Nativity of Christ,” and to ask for his liberation:

 “To His Excellency Mr. Karolos Papoulias…”

Mount Athos with its monasteries is under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. But in the face of the immediate and vigorous protests of the Russian Church, what is striking is the silence of Bartholomew I, who from Istanbul did not issue any comment on the arrest of Hegumen Ephraim.

The Athens newspaper “Ekathimerini” has given special emphasis to this contrast. And it has attributed it to the rivalry between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople, the former of which has for some time been highly active in drawing Athos into its own orbit. The pilgrimage of Hegumen Ephraim to Russia with the relic of the belt of the Virgin is believed to be part of this plan, naturally distasteful to Bartholomew I:

 What the Ephraim case tells us

The fact is that the silence of the patriarch of Constantinople on the egregious arrest of the leading figure of the monks of Athos appears even more thunderous than the protests of the patriarchate of Moscow.

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5 Responses to Christmas in Jail, on Mount Athos

  1. teresa says:

    I think I can understand the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian Orthodox Church has always been imperialistic and in active collaboration with the government. The Russian Orthodox Church was in silent cooperation with the USSR government and now with Putin’s government. I recall a documentary video which shows that all the Greek Catholic bishops in Romania were arrested under Stalin and sent to Gulags or killed directly, when the Russians came to their country after the end of the WWII. And they were replaced by the Orthodox bishops and Greek Catholic Church was wiped out. It shows that the Orthodox Church and Stalin’s regime and the USSR was in some quite unholy alliance. And even today, they haven’t changed much. Don’t know what Archbishop Hilarion would say to this? Though he is a very well educated man he might be politically still quite reactionary and not cherish the idea of Separation of Church and State.


  2. annem040359 says:

    Wow, this is unbelivable!

    First I read up about a broom-brawl that took place at the Church of the Nativity Shrine in the city of Jesus’s birth, now an Orthodox priest from Mout Athos, the Greek Orthodox’s most holy shrine. And I thought that all the misgivings and distrust by those English-speaking Roman Catholics of the then upcoming new 3rd English Roman Missal word changes was the big deal. Oh well.


  3. teresa says:

    Just read a report in today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Abbot Ephraim is said to be the confessor of Vladimir Putin and he was involved in corruption with several former Greek ministers. He did some quite dubious monetary business to gain access to great sums money.

    P.S. Just scrawled the web for more details, here is a report on Athens News:
    THE MOST recent episode in the Vatopedi “drama” took place on December 28, when one of Greece’s most powerful clerics was placed under custody in Korydallos prison. Abbot Ephraim, 56, the head monk of the Vatopedi monastery, is accused of inciting officials to commit acts of fraud, perjury and money-laundering, a charge that can fetch him a jail term of several years.

    The previous night, around 300 monks, nuns and civilians gathered in protest outside the police headquarters in Alexandras Avenue, holding lit candles and singing hymns.

    The abbot, born in Cyprus under the name Vasilis Koutsou and heading one of the country’s richest and most powerful monasteries, has denied all charges.

    In a scandal that rocked the New Democracy (ND) government in 2008, investigators found that land swaps between the state and the Vatopedi monastery, on Mt Athos, were weighed in favour of the monks. The swaps cost taxpayers tens of millions of euros.

    Two ND ministers had to resign over the exchange. Although the ND government cancelled the deals, acknowledging they had hurt the public interest, no politician was ever brought to justice over the scandal. Exposure of the scandal precipitated the fall of the Karamanlis government in 2009.

    MPs have investigated three former government ministers over Vatopedi, but the case against them was dropped because it fell under a statute of limitations. The investigation continued over monks and other public officials.

    Abbot Ephraim had been let free after testifying on the land swap case because the prosecutor and an examining magistrate were at odds on whether to jail him or release him on bail. But a panel of appeals court judges decided on December 23 that he be held in custody pending trial, as he was a flight risk.

    The cleric had been “provisionally” under house arrest at his monastic cell in Vatopedi since Christmas Eve due to a high fever and blood sugar count. He had recently returned from a relic-display fundraising tour in Russia, where he met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and his arrest caused an outcry in religious and conservative circles in Moscow and Athens.

    The Russian Orthodox public organisation, the Foundation of St Andrew Protokletos (First-Called), has spoken up in defence of the archimandrite. “Such actions on the part of authorities of a country that is Eastern Orthodox under the provisions of its constitution can only be regarded as an instance of inadmissible politicisation of court investigations,” the foundation said in a statement.

    “They rushed Ephraim to jail on Christmas Eve, while others who have embezzled Greek people’s money remain at large,” said Yiorgos Karatzaferis, leader of Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos), which is part of the interim government.

    Athos Kiranidis, an Ephraim associate in Cyprus, told Cyprus Mail that more than 10,000 signatures have been collected so far from Cypriot sympathisers. “We’re hoping to reach the one-million mark globally,” Kiranidis said. The petition calls the decision to take Ephraim into custody a “judicial crime” and says it was based on “hatred and prejudice”.

    One of the abbot’s lawyers, Aristotelis Haralambakis, said the decision was unexpected. “We were surprised at the decision to jail him. We had advised him there was only a very small chance of that happening,” he said.

    And a quite good comment from the same paper:


  4. The Raven says:

    It does sound as though there is a little bit of political opportunism here: PASOK trying to blacken ND at a time when their own grubby mismanagement threatens to wipe them out at the polls (although I can’t pretend to care much for ND either, for that matter!).


  5. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    I can’t contribute to the informed debate here but I will say that on a visit to Mount Athos a while back, I found it to be the most miserable and bizarre place.

    Females of any kind, bovine or human were banned. Boys without beard were banned, presumably because the women-starved monks couldnt leave the beardless boys alone. The ban on females was another example of a thread in Christianity which, along with Islam, hates women.

    When I was there, a monk had just nicked yet another ikon to flog to art dealers.

    When the monasteries served soup to visitors such as me, they used the returned slops, and served it with a scowl, which was the usual miserable expression reserved for visitors.

    I hated the place, beautiful as the peninsula was. It is the worst advert for religion I ever experienced first hand. I imagine a Sharia Law country would be as joyless and perverse.


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