December 30, 2011
|Mount Athos monks demonstrated against Abbot Ephraim's detention. Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis|
Mount Athos is famous for its Orthodox Christian monasteries, some of which are subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the late hours of Tuesday, 10 police officers appeared on Mount Athos. It was rather strange to see policemen in a place where no strangers can be usually met except for pilgrims – the more so because the monasteries on Mount Athos have a special status which makes them to a large extent independent from the Greek government.
Father Ephraim was arrested and taken to a police office in Athens, as if he was not a respectable abbot but a gang boss.
The monks of the Vatopedi monastery prayed for Father Ephraim to be released, but the authorities seem to be ignoring their entreaties. On Wednesday morning, Ephraim was conveyed to the most secure prison in Athens.
The abbot is accused of financial embezzlement and fraudulent realty deals. The deals involved exchanging less valuable land for higher-value land which belonged tom the state. But, later, the Greek authorities decided that the bargain was unequal – and are now claiming that, as a result, the state has lost at least € 100 mln.
33 people, including several former Greek ministers, are believed to have been involved in this case – but for some reason, Father Ephraim was the only person who has been arrested.
The Russian Orthodox Church has already appealed to the Greek government with a request to release the abbot.
The head of the PR department of the Moscow Patriarch’s Office Metropolitan Ilarion says:
“The arrest of Father Ephraim raises many questions. There must be some dubious political game behind this story. The Russian Church believes that Father Ephraim’s imprisonment is unfair and inhumane, and will try its best to persuade the Greek authorities to release him – or, at least, put him under house arrest.”
Recently, the abbot of the Vatopedi monastery paid a visit to Russia. He led a delegation of Greek clergymen who brought one of the most worshipped Christian relics, a belt which once belonged to Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Russia. The belt was exhibited in a number of Russian cities, and thousands of believers came to worship it.
This was the first time the relic left the Vatopedi monastery since it became its property. Several European countries and the US have asked Greece to bring the relic there, but instead it was brought to Russia.
“Somebody probably wants Father Ephraim to pay for his sympathies to Russia,” Sergey Rudov, the head of the Russian charitable fund called “The Society of Friends of the Vatopedi monastery”, says.
“There could be two reasons behind Abbot Ephraim’s arrest,” Mr. Rudov says. “One is that the EU has now been insisting for a long time that the Athos monasteries should be stripped of their special status and subordinated to the Greek government to a greater extent, because the EU is unhappy about the fact that currently, one needs a special visas to be able to visit the monasteries on Mount Athos. The second reason is that some people in Europe are unhappy about the growing influence of Russians in Greece – mainly because of the close ties between the Greek and the Russian Churches.”
However, yet another theory could be put forward – the Greek government is trying to put press on the Church in an attempt to make it help the Greek state financially – something which Greece, as a country most affected by the financial crisis in Europe, badly needs.
Last year, when the Greek government decided to increase taxes on the Church, the latter responded with a decisive “no”. The example of Vatican, which does help the Italian government with money, has not made the hierarchs of the Greek Church change their minds.
An expert in church affairs Igor Gaslov, who writes mainly for the Russian website called “Orthodoxy and the World”, says:
“When the economic crisis broke out, monks from Mount Athos transferred the largest part of their assets to an offshore zone in Cyprus. The Greek government took this step as an attempt to evade taxes.”
The Russian St. Andrew Foundation, which organized the coming of Mary’s belt to Russia, has sent its representative to Greece. The representative is already in Athens, and is trying, together with Father Ephraim’s lawyers, to find ways of helping him.
Earlier, St. Andrew Foundation tried to put up a bail for Father Ephraim in an attempt to have him released. But the Greek authorities still remain unbending.