Three weeks ago, on the same day that the Greek government caused international outrage by closing its border with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, a similar crackdown was taking place on Mount Athos, the principal place of pilgrimage for the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians and spiritual headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the time the dust had settled on the mount, one abbot had been toppled and three elected representatives of the monks had been deposed. The 'Holy Community' or monks' government immediately retaliated by boycotting the wishes of their spiritual leaders in Istanbul and issuing statements to the effect that the community was being persecuted.
Mount Athos is an austere and rocky outcrop in the Aegean, some 30 miles long by eight wide, where no woman is allowed and no female domestic animals can be kept. It has been attracting hermits since the earliest times and has been a centre of Eastern Orthodoxy since AD 963. For centuries it has had Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian religious houses among its 20 self-governing monasteries.
Since the fall of Communism, the Orthodox faith has been going through a revival and Mount Athos has benefited in turn, its population doubling in recent years to more than 2,400. At the same time money has poured in to pay for the restoration of buildings and icons and to protect its enormous libraries of Russian, Georgian and Greek Orthodox texts, many dating from the Middle Ages.
Its monks claim it is the oldest continuing democracy in the world and while they answer to the Patriarch in Istanbul on spiritual matters, their autonomy is enshrined in the Greek constitution of 1927.
There has been trouble on the mount in the past, when the Greek police were sent in to eject a community of American Orthodox fanatics. To this day a monastery of religious zealots refuses to pray for the Patriarch, and the church and Greek authorities fear that more fanatics will try to join it.
Because the monks are automatically entitled to Greek and European Union citizenship, wherever they come from, the Greek government has been trying to restrict access to the mount in recent years. 'With the huge revival of Orthodoxy since the fall of Communism, the Greeks are afraid that one day 10,000 Russians will show up on Mount Athos, declare themselves monks and demand Greek citizenship,' said Martin Palmer who runs an international consultancy on religon and culture.
On 17 February last an exarchate (a delegation of three bishops nominated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate) arrived at very short notice and announced that it was going to preside at the next day's meeting of abbots and elected representatives of the 20 main monasteries. According to Father Joseph, a British monk speaking from Mount Athos yesterday, the main item on the agenda was a discussion about 'foreigners' and their status on Mount Athos.
The monks of 13 monasteries immediately rejected the interference in their affairs and, shrugging off their hermetic ways, drafted a press release to alert supporters around the world that the community which had lived independently for 1,000 years was under assault. The monks said Mount Athos 'has with the help of God withstood the devastating assaults of pirates, the Turkish and German occupations and the attempt forcibly to impose union with Rome', and that its survival would be threatened if its self-governing character was interfered with.
The real issues 'are firstly to gag Mount Athos', the statement read, by silencing its protests over what it says are moves to unite Orthodoxy with the Vatican. The Patriarch was also trying to suppress protests 'against the hellenisation of the non-Greek monasteries'.
The stalemate between the 13 monasteries and the Patriarch remains and the strength of feeling among the monks is such that the schism could split the Orthodox faith, according to some sources.
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