04/02/2012, 00.00
GREECE - RUSSIA

Mount Athos abbot released on bail as tensions with Russia continue

by Nina Achmatova
Vatopedi monastery Hegumen Ephrem is released after three months under house arrest. He is suspected in an illegal land sale. The case highlights tensions between Moscow and Athens. Putin might visit Mount Athos for Easter.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Hegumen (Abbot) Ephrem of the Vatopedi monastery was recently released on bail. He had been under house arrest since 26 December on tax fraud charges. Greek news agencies reported that the court agreed with the defence that he did not pose a threat to society, and dropped preventive measures against him. The judges however set bail at 300,000 Euros, ordering the archimandrite not to leave the monastery or Greek territory.

A group of faithful, monks and some representatives of the St Andrew the First-Called Foundation welcomed the abbot after his release. The archimandrite and the Russian Orthodox foundation had brought the Holy Belt of the Virgin to Russia last year. The whole affair can be blamed on his close ties to Moscow and the expansionist goals of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate towards Mount Athos.

The Vatopedi is considered the "aristocracy" of Mount Athos. It is certainly the largest and most important monastery on the Holy Mountain, and falls under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In late December, Greek police arrested the hegumen in compliance with a decision by the Court of Appeal in Athens. He was under investigation because of a land sale in 2008 that penalised Greece's tax authority.

The case made the headlines not only because of Ephrem's advanced age and poor health, but also because it is unusual to see the Orthodox Church involved in such a case given its privileged status. In fact, Mount Athos exercises a high degree of autonomy, something the European Union would like to limit, this according to some.

Ephrem is a prominent individual who over time forged important ties with politicians and business people inside and outside of Greece.

He has for example developed contacts with Russian authorities and the Moscow Patriarchate, which he was able to do in part thanks to the historic rivalry between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, as some sources in the latter lament.

Just a month before his arrest, the prior brought the famous relic of the Virgin's belt on a tour of Russia, where it was seen by 3 million pilgrims.

This helped the Russian government at a time of sharp loss in public support just before upcoming elections, as well as Ephrem, sources in Constantinople said, because investigators were already closing in on him.

As Greece prepares to go to the early polls in May, some reports indicate that newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Vatopedi for Orthodox Easter, which falls on 15 April this year.

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