Clashes with members of the new brotherhood

Spyros Staveris

Esphigmenou: The monastery was founded 1,502 years ago on the eastern side of Mt Athos by the sister of Emperor Theodosius II.

In 2005 a new five-member brotherhood was elected, led by Abbot Chrysostomos, with its seat at the Simonos Petra Monastery.

«That was a coup. According to the charter of Mt Athos, an abbot has to have lived at the monastery for at least 10 years. We don't know who Chrysostomos is. The electors, moreover, have to have lived there for six years. In any case, the Mt Athos monasteries are all self-governing. No one can intervene in their domestic affairs, unless debts have been incurred. They are refusing to include our monks in the monastic register and have been forging our signatures since 1972.»

As soon as the new brotherhood took over, the monastery's telephones were cut off, post was no longer delivered but handed over to the new brotherhood. Electricity to the Esphigmenou dairy farm at Ierissos was cut off, their tractor confiscated and the monks prohibited from fishing or using the monastery's two small boats. Their car's registration was not renewed. They are not allowed to call a doctor to the monastery; the nearest medical attention is in Karyes, a six-hour walk away.

In November 2005, monks from the new brotherhood broke down the door of the seat of the Esphigmenou Monastery in Karyes and attacked the monks staying there. In early October, 2006, a Thessaloniki court threw out their suit because the seat was owned by the new brotherhood. A few days later, nine monks from Esphigmenou were sentenced to two years' imprisonment for disturbing the peace.

The same month, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, accompanied by seven riot squad platoons, visited Mt Athos for the opening of the new brotherhood's new seat within the grounds of the building where the Esphigmenou Monastery representation is situated. The door was forced open so the liturgy could take place.

On December 26, there was another attack on the Esphigmenou seat by the new brotherhood. In the ensuing melee, injuries were sustained on both sides. Three of the Esphigmenou monks who were taken to the hospital were not permitted to return to Mt Athos. A fourth, arrested by Karyes police, was expelled.

«We are in favor of dialogue. Religious differences are not solved by cutting off heads. They have stopped our income, our medical treatment. Don't we have human rights?» the monks ask.

After pressure from a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for order to be restored, talks between the Foreign and Public Order ministries and the Supreme Court prosecutor resulted in a surprise «expulsion operation» on Saturday, December 23, 2006. However, the operation was canceled after the decision was leaked to the monks who informed the media. The Moscow Patriarchate intervened, its spokesman warning the Ecumenical Patriarchate in a letter that any untoward action or violence should be avoided.

A month later, criminal action was brought against the Esphigmenou monks for allegedly transferring monastery property to Old Calendarist organizations, foundations and individuals. The taxation bureau is also carrying out an investigation.

«We haven't received a penny… they are trying to slander us. We are the poorest monastery on Mt Athos. We have no bank accounts. Only what each monk might have and whatever the faithful might donate. We have not taken money from the EU - 5 billion euros had been earmarked for Esphigmenou - because they will want something in return,» say the monks. Another reservation the monks cite with regard to the EU is a ruling in 2003 (passed by 274 to 269 votes) by the European Parliament to lift the ban on women visitors to Mt Athos, arguing that women pay taxes and have equal rights. The monks draw attention to the fact that Mt Athos's special status was enshrined in Greece's EU accession act.

This article appeared in the March 11 issue of K, Kathimerini's color supplement.