November 4, 2008
Over the past few weeks, Greece has been engrossed by an unfolding scandal involving a prominent monastery situated on isolated Mt Athos, the monastic community that makes up the third leg of the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece.
The monastery in question, Vatopedi, is possibly the richest and most prestigious and such institution on the “Holy Mountain,” which clings to Byzantine edicts and rituals that were introduced more than 1,000 years ago. The Athonite monks thus preserve some of the world’s most significant religious art and medieval manuscripts, in huge quantities built up in part by the generous endowments of Greek, Georgian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and Russian patrons in centuries past.
The Vatopedi story involves numerous powerful actors and financial interests. Since the story erupted some six weeks ago, a flood of information surpassing the ability of even the most attentive of readers has deluged the Greek media. Numerous media, and especially Alpha TV in Athens, have played a role in exposing the deals and creating a heavily politicized atmosphere around the case. Rather than exacerbate this proliferation of data, we will simply present a concise account here.
As one of the largest and wealthiest Athonite monasteries, Vatopedi commands a certain power within the hierarchy of monasteries here, and in the Orthodox world in general (see also Vatopedi’s official website). Also, being situated on the northeastern shore of the Athonite peninsula, near a sheltered harbor; it enjoys easy access by water, lying within close proximity to the nearest ports in the non-monastic portion of the peninsula.
This factor has made Vatopedi, in comparison to nearby inland monasteries or ones further down the coast, convenient and accessible for celebrities and the wealthy. Thus Vatopedi has acquired a reputation among a wide range of analysts, echoed by events, as becoming in recent years a communications and networking hub for British royalty, rich Greek ship-owners in London and Cyprus and, reportedly, now for Russian oligarchs as well.
The Holy Mountain’s strict procedures for entry (four-day maximum permits are issued for a limited number of pilgrims per day), and unique rules (women, for example, are not allowed to enter at all, due to an 11th-century Byzantine edict) have lent goings-on there an air of mystery- ideal for fueling rumors and speculation. When Prince Charles pulled up by yacht at the monastery in 2004, for example, the British media noted that “‘the frequency of the prince’s visits had fuelled speculation among clerics in Greece that he is interested in converting to the religion.”
Although certain details about the latest saga have surfaced in the mainstream media, the question of how it was all made possible in the first place has still not been answered. One theory is that the convergence of powerful individuals around this monastery has relations to efforts being made by a small group of Orthodox high priests and officials in several countries, who aim to create a sort of ‘Orthodox Vatican,’ as will be discussed further below.
The essence of the alleged scandal is that some of Vatopedi’s monks deviously mishandled the real estate holdings of the monastery. As is well known, the Orthodox Church is the largest single landowner in Greece, and the Athonite monasteries are especially well endowed.
Vatopedi Monastery has traditionally held great estates all over Greece. Over the past decade, however, it has managed to swap some of these locations for other land – in high-value places like Athens – and then resell these acquisitions, making a tidy profit in the process.
Those accusing the monastery of illegitimate behavior are now arguing that the swaps, although made lawfully, constitute a scandal because the real estate value was calculated wrongly by the accountants and realtors involved. According to the New York Times, “the land deals began in 1999, under a Socialist government, but about 260 swaps were finalized after [Costas] Karamanlis’s center-right New Democracy Party took power in 2004.”
An unusual but important issue inherent to this case stems from the nebulous legal character of the semi-autonomous ‘monastic republic.’ On the one hand, it is a part of the Greek state and the monks, regardless of their country of origin, must become Greek citizens. On the other hand, within the Orthodox hierarchy it is subordinate not to the archbishop of Athens (who commands the flock in the rest of Greece) but to the Ecumenical Patriarchy of Constantinople (Istanbul).
Much of the Athonite monasteries’ extensive landholdings and monastic dependencies long predate the modern borders of the Greek state. The Ottoman Turks let the monks preserve their traditions and their rites, but property was not guaranteed. And several wars and redrawn borders over the past 200 years have further confused the situation.
In this context it is remarkable – though not very surprising – to note that Vatopedi’s monks were able to acquire land, such as an area near the Vistonida Lake in Thrace, simply by presenting a Byzantine chrysovoulos (chrysobull), the mark of any specific emperor’s final judgment or endowment of authority. Medieval Western rulers were entranced by such displays of status that they famously adopted them on rare occasions, but today it is only in Greece, apparently, that people are still citing medieval Golden Bulls in any legally binding context.
In the Balkans, realty titles from historically distant times are sometimes recognized by the state, in acknowledgement of the turbulence of preceding periods. The issue remains, as elsewhere in the former Ottoman Balkans, one of legitimacy and legal right. In Greece, where the Orthodox Church has far greater influence than the church in any Western country, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire is still considered by some the benchmark of prior stability and, importantly, cultural legitimacy, an edifice upon which the foundation of the modern order has been established.
Of course, the current scandal does not only involve churchmen. Leading political figures in Greece have maintained strong contacts with some Vatopedi monks, and there is speculation that they played a part in securing these suspicious real estate deals benefits for the monastery. Already a judicial inquiry has been ordered by the general prosecutor in Athens for this, but it is speculated that it will take years – if ever – for a decision to be reached.
The current imbroglio has been enlivened by the political brinkmanship witnessed between the recently resigned Press Minister and known ‘friend of Vatopedi,’ Theodoros Roussopoulos, and certain leading Athenian journalists. Roussopoulos himself was originally a journalist, and became a very powerful figure in the space of just a few years of course, in the process he also alienated other powerful people, and allegedly displayed favoritism for his own group of friends, thus causing resentment among a wide range of interests in Greece.
Roussopolis was the second Greek minister in a month to resign over the scandal; he was preceded by Merchant Marine Minister George Voulgarakis, who also insists he has done nothing illegal. Mr Voulgarakis’s wife, a lawyer, is accused of serving as a legal witness to the Thracian transactions.
In particular, Roussopolis’s friendship with the head monk at Vatopedi, the Greek Cypriot Archimandrite Ephraim, has provided a perfect opportunity for his enemies to attack, as they have done for the past few weeks in the press. The implication has been raised that Ephraim of Vatopedi seemed to have the ambition of becoming an important behind-the-scenes figure in an emerging ‘Orthodox Vatican’ centered around his own monastery. Its bank accounts were recently found to be in excess of 200 million euros, and the real estate fortune, possibly much more. According to the BBC, the Thracian deal alone drained the state of around 100 million euros.
Clearly, the monastery and its leader also have strong international ties that potentially mean the real estate saga is just a detail, relatively speaking. As the New York Times notes, Vatopedi “is the legal proprietor of a number of houses, hotels and mines and the owner of large pieces of land in Greece, Cyprus, the Balkans and Turkey.” And, as the Turkish Daily News noted:
“certainly the charismatic chief monk was capable enough to have created a rich network of valuable connections among politicians and business circles both in Greece and abroad; he even managed to attract enough international celebrities to the beautiful surrounding of Vatopedi, like Prince Charles of Wales, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.”
A final tantalizing thought arises from all this. By piecing together a variety of off-the-record diplomatic sources and anecdotal material, one can create a patchwork of activities for which the monastery, and the Holy Mountain in general, seem ideally suited.
These activities include major international business deals, high-level, third-party communications linkages, meetings of minds, political intriguing and even espionage. Indeed, rumors of intelligence agencies’ protected ‘safe houses’ on the isolated shores of Athos persist and it would seem that the remote, well-regulated and controlled nature of the place would by nature make it ideal for any kind of activity requiring discretion and silence.
Of course, these very factors are probably part of the reason why ‘scandals’ involving the monasteries and the church in general seem to dependably spring forth every few months. There is much that will never be known. One-thousand-year-old walls, especially, don’t tend to talk.
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