A short history of the dispute surrounding Esphigmenou

 A series of recent measures taken by the Holy Community of Mount Athos against the Esphigmenou Monastery brings to light a dispute of over thirty years.  In the dispute between the Holy Community and the Monastery of Esphigmenou, the monks of Esphigmenou are again being treated very unfairly by the Athonite Community.  Here is a brief history.

 In 1972, the Monks of Esphigmenou raised black flags on their Monastery in protest against the meeting of the then Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and the Pope.  The monks did not object to dialogue and discussion, per se, but to formal ecclesiastical union engaged in by the patriarch by having joint prayer services with the Roman Catholic Church.  Such services are a de facto reunification of the church, bypassing the formal process of convening a synod to decide matters of faith as is the rule of the church.  

 What followed was a four month siege by land and sea. On land, Greek Marines surrounded the Holy Monastery, and off the coast, enforcing a blockade by sea and in plain view of the oceanside monastery, sat a Greek Navy Warship.  The besieged monks, unwilling to be intimidated by the overwhelming military force deployed against them, answered with a message of their own, unfurling a banner over their monastery wall which read, "Orthodoxy or Death".

 In the years that followed, the monks of Esphigmenou, with their exemplary ascetic life, gained the esteem of those in the monastic community on Mt. Athos, even those who theologically disagreed with them. The high regard in which the monks of Esphigmenou were held, kept at bay those who wanted to take over the Monastery from finding a way to achieve their goal.  In the most recent event, the Patriarch tried to act through the use of force by using his influence with the Greek Government to secure an eviction order of the monks.  However, the regional Greek Governor in charge of Mount Athos, Costas Papoulides, resigned his position after refusing to carry out instructions from higher authorities to use force in order to enter the Monastery and evict the Monks.


 In the past, however, there were periods of cooperation when the Holy Community of Mt. Athos approached the Monks of Esphigmenou with a desire to resolve the differences as had happened four years ago.  Then, a majority of monasteries, thirteen out of twenty, voted together to oppose the abolishment of the self-governing status of the Holy Mountain and thereby foiled the plans of Patriarch Bartholomew to assert his control over the community.

 The Ecumenical Patriarch then applied pressure to the monasteries, and stopped this process of rapprochement and dialogue which the Holy community had with Esphigmenou, because it was beginning to achieve some success.  The process of rapprochement had been marked by repeated visits of the representatives of the majority of the Monasteries of the Holy Community to Esphigmenou monastery to discuss its return to the Holy Community.

 The self-governing status, as well as the autonomy, which the Monasteries have and always enjoyed, has been the principle reason for the Holy Mountain’s survival throughout the centuries. The principles of tolerance, understanding, and respect were exercised on the Holy Mountain and constituted important achievements for Orthodoxy, aiding in the preservation of monastic life.   Any disagreements over its 1,000 year history have always been solved amongst the independent monasteries which occupy the peninsula and which have governed themselves through their combined Holy Community without interference from the outside world.

 Throughout the years, many committees of the Holy Community, the "Holy Epistasia" (the Secretariat of the Holy Community), as well as many patriarchal missions who have at times visited the autonomous district of Mount Athos, have occupied themselves with the issue of Esphigmenou monastery.  The passage of time, and the tendency of the Esphigmenite Fathers not to provoke their neighbors, proved that a "de facto" status quo of mutual acceptance and tolerance had stabilized and that only the theological and dogmatic differences remained.


 But the current Holy Community Committee, composed mainly of the hieromonks hand-picked by the Patriarch of Constantinople, chose a forceful way of handling the whole issue.

 A series of and increasingly hard line and forceful measures taken since last summer has again made the life of the Esphigmenite brotherhood difficult. The Holy Community refuses to recognize the Abbot Methodios, the Members of the Governing Committee of the Monastery of Esphigmenou, as well as 113 of its 117 Monks. The remaining four are recognized because they were registered in the List of  Monks (the Monachologion) of the Monastery before 1972.  Ever since then, however, the Holy Community has refused to accept the new entries to the Lists of Monks sent by the Esphigmenou Monastery. In this way, the new Holy Community Committee wages a technical war of attrition and thereby considers all those monks as "illegal occupants".


 The first provocation against the monastery was the restriction of visitors to Esphigmenou.  Next, was the blockade of all provisions to the monastery, including those containing, food, medicine and heating oil.  Next, an order of the Acting Civil Governor of the Holy Mountain froze all the Bank accounts of the Monastery.  Then the State of Greece stopped paying the monastery, its annual compensation as required by agreement, for the expropriation of a great number of real estate, properties and land, which the monastery owned outside the boundaries of Mount Athos.

 The monks of Esphigmenou, not wishing to engage in a confrontation or involve outside secular authorities in church affairs endured these hardship in silence.  They faced this embargo by purchasing through donations a large speedboat which can travel safely even in seas of up to eight beaufourts.  In this way they have been able to “run” their embargo up until now. They are afraid however that the appetite for confrontation on the part of the Patriarch has not been satisfied, and the next step will be the prohibition of the use of the speedboat, says the Secretary of the Monastery, the Monk Theokletos.

 Many monks throughout the Holy Mountain who lead a simple monastic life disagree with these heavy handed and decidedly unchristian actions.  Now the monastic community has been divided and many of the monks are against the use of force against the brotherhood of Esphigmenou. They say that tolerance is a characteristic of Orthodoxy and the Holy Mountain and that any of the problems which arise among the Athonite monks should be solved by the monks themselves in a spirit of patience, love, and discretion as well as over time.


 In November 2002, the Executive Committee of the Holy Community sent, through a constable of the court, a summons to each one of the monks of Esphigmenou (including those who have died) in which eighty-eight charges have been addressed to each one of them, calling them to appear in groups of twenty-five by December 5, 2002.  The monks answered the summons in writing, stressing the fact that the accusations against them were vague and baseless. After the expiration of this deadline, the Holy Community, now controlled by members loyal to Bartholomew, issued a finding that, the monks were an illegal brother hood, and instructed them to vacate the monastery by January 28th, 2003.

 Persistent rumors have it that a new brotherhood for the Monastery of Esphigmenou has been created, composed of monks from other monasteries, and a new abbot will be established, who now is a member of the Holy Community Committee. This new group, with a new seal for the Monastery, has been temporarily established in the premises of the Russian Skete of Prophet Elijah, and has secretly been given all the privileges and rights of the Monastery of Esphigmenou.  The hope is to make the ultimate goal of seizing the monastery a fait accompli by having the new brotherhood of monks step in and take physical possession of the monastery after the forceful eviction of the Esphigmenou brotherhood.

 Now the monastery is under siege on land by the Greek Police and at sea by the Greek Coast Guard.  Last week the monks were served papers by the Greek Coast Guard prohibiting the use of their boat.  This had been their only lifeline to the outside world and the only way to bring food in for themselves.  Now, only hours remain until the deadline for eviction, and the armed forces of the Greek Government are poised to evict the monks by force.


The Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou appeals for the moral support of all people, so that the Human Rights and Religious Freedom of its 117 monks will not be trampled and so that the Monastery may continue, without hindrance, to pursue its spiritual life and philanthropy towards all people. 

 Special thanks goes to the Greek newspaper Ethnos, for writing the article which formed the basis of this history.

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