Rebel monks pledge to resist police at Greek abbey eviction

Could someone possibly please explain what this one is all about? A rather opinionated report from the right-libertarian Liberty Forum, Oct. 20:

Thessalonica – The Greek Government will move, as early as this weekend, to have armed police forcibly remove the monks of the Holy and Sacred Monastery of Esphigmenou from their monastery property. Over 150 police have been deployed on Mt. Athos, an unprecedented number in a community entirely populated by peaceful and defenseless monks.

The monks, who seek only a life of peace and prayer in their monastery, have been subject to a non-stop campaign of official harassment and intimidation by Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, Turkey, and his accomplices in the Greek government, because of a spiritual disagreement they have with him.

This week the Greek government announced it would prosecute the monks for embezzlement. This is a fundamental abuse of power that may be commonplace in the world’s most repressive dictatorships, but not something we expect from a free and democratic Greece. The charge lacks credibility, as it seems the prosecutor has forgotten that in an earlier round of the government’s campaign of harassment and intimidation, they confiscated and emptied all of the monastery’s bank accounts.

The Greek Government, acting under Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis, has blockaded the delivery of food, medicine, fuel oil and have denied access to doctors seeking to provide urgently needed medical care to the elderly monks. They have cut the monastery’s telephone lines in a clumsy attempt to cut off their communication and hide their persecution from the outside world. They have confiscated their tractors so they cannot grow food to sustain themselves. They have expelled workers who have worked at the monastery for years, and voided their pensions and government benefits for providing help to the monastery.

The abuses of human rights to it own citizens by the Greek government and Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis, could go on for pages.

Last week, in a display of judicial backwardness found only in banana republics, the Greek Court in Thessalonica found the monks guilty of the absurd charge of “disturbing the peace” and of being illegal occupants of their monastery home for 1500 years, while simultaneously allowing those who attacked the monks with sledgehammers to go free.

As Patriarch Bartholomew and the government of Greece descend further into the pit of backwardness and medieval religious persecution, the protests from religious leaders and lay people around the world are growing. On October 13th, Bishop Stephen, primate of the Italo-Greek Orthodox church, wrote to Patriarch Bartholomew “your treatment and persecution of the monks of Esphigmenou is a scandal to the Church and an embarrassment to all Orthodox Christians throughout the world. It sullies the good name of the Orthodox Church . . . Such behavior and acts are barbaric and take us back to the Dark Ages and for this Your All-Holiness should be deeply ashamed”

In the history of the church over 23 Patriarchs of Constantinople have been condemned for heresy.

This weekend, Patriarch Bartholomew will visit Mt. Athos to lay a cornerstone for a new monastery, on land confiscated from the monastery of Esphigmenou. In an unprecedented move, the Greek government has banned all media outlets from covering the Patriarch’s visit to Mt. Athos. Only the Greek State owned and controlled TV station will be allowed to cover his visit. It is expected that armed police will forcibly remove the monks before the Patriarch’s visit to fulfill his desire of a Disney-like atmosphere, where everything looks nice on the surface, but in reality is all fake.

The Greek Prosecutors office in Thessalonica, headed by Vassilis Florides (tel: +30-697-388-5888), has threatened grave consequences to anyone who dares to raise their voice to protest the Patriarch’s actions.

A somewhat more objective update from Kathimerini, Oct. 23:

Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios yesterday appealed to a group of ultra-Orthodox monks occupying the Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos to “return to the fold” during a visit to the ancient monastic community.

Vartholomaios, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox faithful, called upon his “misguided brothers” to end their “illegal” 17-month occupation of the building and “return to the loving embrace of the Church and Mount Athos.”

“No one can lack a spiritual father,” the patriarch said during a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a new building in Karyes, the monastic community’s administrative center, to replace the one occupied by the rebels.

The ceremony, attended by Deputy Foreign Minister Theodoros Kassimis and a Thessaloniki prosecutor, was “the correct move to restore an ugly, irregular, illegal situation which has been provoking discontent,” according to Vartholomaios.

Abbot Chrysostomos, who was appointed last year to replace the rebel abbot Methodius, insisted that the monks’ occupation “will not deter us.”


See our last post on Greece.

  1. On the Esphigmenou Monastery
    The Monastery of Esphigmenou, part of the autonomous monastic district of Mt. Athos in Greece, has been involved in a theological dispute with the Patriarchate of Constantinople (also called the Ecumenical Patriarchate) for a number of years. The dispute arises from disagreement about how the Orthodox Church should participate in the ecumenical movement and in the World Council of Churches.

    The monks of Esphigmenou advocate a conservative approach toward dialogue with other Christian denominations. The Patriarchate, for a number of years, has been conducting a more liberal or syncretistic approach to dialogue, despite theological objections from various Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical and academic centers around the world. In protest, the monks ceased commemorating the name of the Patriarch in their services.

    Up to about three years ago, the dispute was purely theological. In 2003, however, the Patriarchate began legal procedures to evict the monks from their monastery. They established a parallel brotherhood and confiscated the Esphigmenou monks’ assets. Greek Police sieged the monastery and imposed an embargo on supplies–including medical supplies and visiting permits for doctors.

    This has all been in an attempt to stifle debate within Orthodoxy about the way dialogue with other Christian denominations is carried out and the Patriarch’s methods thus far.

    This summer, the Patriarchate charged the monks with heresy in civil court in an attempt to gain state support for their eviction. Then, last week the Greek Courts sentenced nine monks from Esphigmenou to two years in prison “for disturbing the peace” by failing to conform to the eviction order.

    The US State Department has made a number of appeals to the Greek
    Government on behalf of the monks. The situation is described in the 2006 Internatonal Religious Freedom Report.

  2. Esphigmenou
    In order to understand this debate it is necessary to understand some of the Orthodox Ecclesiology. The main unit of the Church is the diocese – that is the Bishop surrounded by the people in one defined area. At most services you have to acknowledge the authority of the local Bishop: Esphigmenou Monastery is not doing this. They believe the Patriarch (in this case he is the local Bishop) to be heretical so refuse to accept his authority over them.

    While you might not agree with this line of arguement, it is the one which the the Patriarchate is using as they try to normalise the life of the Monastery by appointing a new community Abbot.

    1. Re: Esphigmenou
      While the ecclesiastical structure you describe is true, embargo and forced eviction are a heavy-handed approach. If the purpose is to bring the monks back into the fold, then the Patriarch should have relied on dialogue.

      He didn’t, though. He just didn’t appoint a new Abbot. He declared an entire community of 110 monks as “illegal occupants” by fiat. This is more about buildings–and the symbolic value of these particular buildings–than about pastoring. Nor is he concerned about “normalizing” life for the rest of the monks. This is about who occupies those buildings, not about coming to a consensus with the monks.

      The measures taken by the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) Bartholomew and the Athonite Community are a thinly veiled attempt to stifle debate within Orthodoxy about the way dialogue with other Christian denominations is carried out and the Patriarch’s methods thus far. It is a shame that this affair has come about because of dialogue with other faiths, yet Orthodox leaders have not been able or willing to conduct a dialogue within their own faith.

      The views that these monks represent are more widely held in the Orthodox world than is usually publically admitted. There is no consensus in Orthodoxy about the ecumenical movement. The monks have legitimate concerns and those concerns are shared by many (if not most) Orthodox Christians. They have just acted in order to bring the issue into public view. But this is exactly the problem for the Patriarch: he doesn’t want the issue in public view. And for this reason, he’s willing to blockade and evict them.

  3. They blame the Pope
    It’s not called the Byzantine Church for nothing. The monks themselves have their own website; they seem a bit overwrought:

    Today we celebrate the blessed memory of the martyrs of Zografou Monastery on Mt. Athos. Like the monks of Esphigmenou, they resisted their Patriarch who sought to bring the Orthodox Church under papal rule. As Orthodox Chrisitans we fervently desire the return of the Latins to bring them back to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which has never lost the Truth or its unity. But Patriarch Bartholomew, like Patriarch Bekkos, does not share this mindset. The monks of Zografou paid for their beliefs with their lives and were burned alive in the tower of their monastery on Mt. Athos where they had locked themselves. This was done at the hands of the Patriarch of Constantinople, John Bekkos. Much like the current Patriarch, he enjoyed all the rights, privileges and honors of being Patriarch of Constantinople, and used that power for his own political purposes. Patriarch Bekkos, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the first among equals, he who sat in the Phanar, was, of course condemned for heresy. What awaits this Patriarch?

    The US State Deptartment has more details:

    The intra-Orthodox doctrinal dispute between Esphigmenou monastery on Mt. Athos and the Ecumenical Patriarchate that administers the region under the 1924 Charter of Mt. Athos continued. Esphigmenou is an Old Calendarist monastery that does not recognize the authority of the Patriarchate. In March 2005, the Council of State declined to rule on the appeal of a 2002 eviction request by the Ecumenical Patriarchate against the abbot of Esphigmenou on the grounds that it was not competent, under the constitution, to judge the ecclesiastic and administrative jurisdiction of the Patriarchate over Mt. Athos, but the Government had not enforced the expulsion order. Approximately ninety similar appeals by other Esphigmenou monks were pending. In late 2005, the Holy Community governing Mt. Athos appointed a new Esphigmenou monastic order, recognized by the Patriarchate, to replace the existing order. An open dispute between the two monastic orders ensued in December. The Esphigmenou monastery complained about restrictions on access to supplies and medical care that it claimed threatened the survival of the monastery. Government and ecclesiastic representatives claimed they preferred to settle this dispute without eviction.