The monk at the center of the controversial property exchange between the Vatopedi Monastery and the state, Ephraim, arrived in Athens late on Tuesday several days after a council of judges deemed he should be remanded in custody pending trial on charges of money laundering and embezzlement.
Doctors deemed that the abbot had recovered from a brief illness and was well enough to travel to Athens to face a prosecutor. The monastic community on Mount Athos in northern Greece, where Vatopedi is located, expressed its support for Ephraim in a written statement. Dozens of monks also saw him off when he boarded a boat for the first leg of his journey. He continued his trip by car.
Several bishops and MPs of the nationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) criticized the decision to remand Ephraim in custody. Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou said he had no intention of intervening in the judicial system.
Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, also questioned the timing of the decision, since it was taken so close to Christmas, but said that he had faith in the Greek justice system.
There were less diplomatic comments from Russia, where Ephraim had recently traveled with the Virgin Mary’s belt, which was put on display and seen by tens of thousands of Russians. Igor Yakimchuk, a secretary for the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for foreign church relations, described the decision to place Ephraim in custody as “unreasonably cruel” and “exclusively one of political nature.”
“This is an unprecedented event and it is natural for us to worry,” he told the Interfax news agency. “Even if we assume that Ephraim is guilty of something, the arrest of an abbot of the monastery, of a monk, is a last resort.”
Ephraim met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin twice during his trip to Russia and Yakimchuk suggested that the monk’s activity may have played a part in his arrest.
This prompted a reaction from the Union of Judges and Prosecutors, which accused Russia of trying to exercise pressure on the Greek justice system.
“It is unprecedented for a foreign country’s officials to criticize decisions taken by the independent Greek judiciary,” the union said.