Out of Greece: Monastic calm conceals furious struggle

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MOUNT ATHOS - In the pre-dawn hours a tremendous din of wooden boards being beaten and bells ringing wakes the monks, pilgrims and travellers at the remote monastery of Xeropotamou in northern Greece.

There is no more controversial place in Greece than Xerotopolou, one of the 20 monasteries in the semi- autonomous 'Theocratic Republic' of Mount Athos. Like the Name of The Rose, Umberto Eco's novel about medieval monastic life in France, Mount Athos is steeped in suspicion, constantly on guard against the intrigues of the world outside, but especially of the Christian Orthodox Church hierarchy and the state.

Despite an outward calm, Mount Athos is locked in a bitter struggle with Athens and the Patriarch of the Orthodox faith in Istanbul over, among other issues, its abbot.

The monasteries on Mount Athos have survived centuries of piracy, pillaging by Catalan mercenaries, executions under the Second Crusade and the heavy hand of the Ottoman empire. They are overflowing with precious books, relics and gold-covered icons. Recently they also had to contend with a sea-borne raid by bandits armed with machine- guns and led by a disgruntled former monk.

To gain access to the monks' republic, visitors and pilgrims must first get a laissez-passer from the Ministry of Northern Greece in Salonika. A hundred visitors a day are allowed but no more than 10 foreigners. There are no roads down the peninsula, so the last stage of the journey is by boat and then by four-wheel-drive to the monastery, perched high above the Aegean. The monks in their black flowing robes and long wispy beards live a self-sufficient life of work and prayer modelled on the early Christians.

So all heaven and hell was let loose when the police arrested a young novice in the Bulgarian monastery. He was deported from Greece as a spy after the authorities claimed he had taken photographs in the forests around the monastery. The monks scoff at the suggestion and make the counter-claim that the Greek Foreign Ministry's liaison office to the republic is staffed with intelligence officers who send reports on individual monks to the Patriarch in Istanbul.

The monks say the Bulgarian monk was evicted on the Patriarch's instructions because he wants to wrest control of the monastery from its elderly residents and the young novice was an obstacle in his path.

At the heart of the latest controversy is Father Joseph, the Abbot. Of Greek nationality, he is one of the most dynamic figures in the monastic community and was the youngest monk ever elected Abbot, a lifetime position. Two months ago he and three others were summarily sacked without explanation by the Patriarch.

The decision was overturned last week, when a majority of monasteries voted to reject it, but the monks remain deeply suspicious of the Patriarch's intentions. They are especially critical of moves to unite the Orthodox faith, the religion of some 30 million people, with the Roman Catholic church.

At its core, the struggle is for the hearts and minds of the Orthodox faithful. Mount Athos is the spiritual home of Orthodoxy and has always had Serbian, Russian and Bulgarian monasteries. Until recently they were in a state of collapse but this has changed with the resurgence of Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe and Greece. The monks want to maintain the pan- Orthodox tradition despite the attractive force of the European Union which is pulling the Greek state in the opposite direction.

Athens is looking westward where, in political and economic terms, it sees a more secure and prosperous future for Greece. The prospect of Greece playing host to what could in time become a hotbed of Slavic-led Orthodox religious fanaticism has little appeal for it.