01/10/2012, 00.00
RUSSIA - GREECE

Abbot of Mount Athos arrested. War of influence between Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Nina Achmatova
Abbot Ephrem is under arrest since 24 December after his return from the tour in Russia, with the relic of the Virgin's belt. Moscow denounces judicial persecution, but he is a controversial figure who has made various attempts to distance himself from Constantinople.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - European Union pressure on Greece, the economic and political ambitions of a "hyperactive" monk and the expansionist ambitions of the Moscow Patriarchate on Mount Athos. These are some of the conclusions drawn over the last two weeks, by the media, analysts and churchmen in an attempt to explain the arrest of Hegumen Ephraim, abbot of the Vatopedi monastery. It is considered the '"aristocracy" of Mount Athos, the largest and most important of the Holy Mountain, which falls under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

On 24 December, the police arrested Archimandrite by decision of the Court of Appeal of Athens as part of an investigation into a 2008 sale of land, to the loss of the Hellenic exchequer. The case has made headlines not only because of his advanced age and poor health, but also because unusual in a country where the Orthodox Church has a privileged status, with its strong autonomy on Mount Athos. In addition, Ephrem is a high-level personality who over time has managed to forge important contacts in the world of politics and business inside and outside of the border.

An example of this is his contacts with the Russian authorities and the Moscow Patriarchate, established thanks to his exploitation of the historical rivalry between the Russian Orthodox Church and Constantinople, as denounced by sources within the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Just a month before his arrest, the prior had brought the famous relic of the Virgin's belt on tour to Russia, which was venerated by three million pilgrims throughout the Federation. Something useful for the Russian government, given its sharp decline in consensus with the legislative elections around the corner, but also for the same Ephrem – maintain the Constantinople sources - just as the circle of investigations tightened around him.

His arrest took place, in fact, immediately after his return from Russia and has generated a very strong reaction from the Moscow Patriarchate. Kirill himself has written to the Greek president, Karolos Papoulias, to ask for his release, while the Metropolitan Hilarion, responsible for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, spoke of "hostile attack the Athos monks and the entire Orthodox Church".

Many have noted, however, Bartholomew’s silence on the issue. Sources close to the Ecumenical Patriarch have told AsiaNews that it is only "prudence" and recalled that after repeated rebukes regarding his financial and political initiatives, Ephraim had already been deprived of the administrative management of Vatopedi, leaving him exclusively as the spiritual leader there. The Patriarchate apparently also "advised" him to resign, having no right to impose its will on him.

For Sergey Rudov, head of the Foundation of Friends of the Monastery of Vatopedi and member of the Public Chamber in Russia, Ephrem is being subjected to "legal persecution". "There are two reasons behind his arrest - he told the official TV broadcaster NTV - the first is that under EU pressure, Greece aims to reduce the status of autonomy of Mount Athos and the second is the growing influence of 'Russian Orthodoxy on the Holy Mountain ", favoured by the same Ephrem and not appreciated by the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
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