Ruling stokes monks’ discord

A court in Thessaloniki yesterday gave suspended two-year jail sentences to nine of the 110 ultra-Orthodox monks of the Esphigmenou Monastery after finding them guilty of disturbing the peace. The defendants were involved in tussles last December with representatives of the Orthodox Church Hierarchy over plans to install monks from another order in a building next to Esphigmenou. Monks from the rival order told the court they had asked members of the Esphigmenou brotherhood to leave the monastery peacefully. However, the Esphigmenou monks insisted, through their solicitor, that members of the new brotherhood had no right to be on the premises. The monks of Esphigmenou Monastery are opposing efforts by the other monasteries in the monastic community of Mount Athos, in northern Greece, to remove them following a ruling by the country’s top administrative court that their presence there is illegal. The Esphigmenou monks, who still observe the old Julian calendar, occupy one of Greece’s oldest monasteries and have been locked in a dispute since 1972 with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul over its decision to improve ties with the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. But Athanassios Papageorgiou, a former physician at the monastery, told the court that elderly monks were dying without any medical help as a result of their isolation. He said that outsiders have not been allowed access to the monastery since last year. The eviction order, issued in December 2002, followed the ultra-Orthodox Esphigmenou monks’ persistent refusal to acknowledge the authority of Patriarch Vartholomaios. The monks tried to take a first step in healing the rift earlier this year by writing to Vartholomaios in June expressing their support for his efforts to be fully recognized by Turkish authorities. The Greek government has recently tried to mediate in the crisis and Vartholomaios is due to visit Mount Athos next Saturday, when the subject of Esphigmenou is set to dominate proceedings.