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
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