Athos ‘Forbidden Brethren’ Fight Back

Zealot monks who have turned against the Orthodox Patriarchate defy order to leave the monastic state by January 28

-- by George Gilson


Thirty-year battle between the zealot monks of Mount Athos’ Esfigmenou Monastery and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has turned into a war to the finish. Abbot Methodios and his over 100 monks are appealing to the Council of State to challenge a decision by Aristos Kasmiroglou, acting civil governor of Athos, to expel the monastic brotherhood by January 28. Kasmiroglou acted based on a December decision of Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos and his Holy Synod declaring the Esfigmenou brotherhood schismatic and ordering them to leave the Holy Mountain.

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As the church that has spiritual jurisdiction over the self-governing monastic state, the patriarchate is demanding that Esfigmenou pray for the patriarch at their services, an ecclesiastical requirement. But the brotherhood of the monastery has refused to do so since 1972, and that has led to three decades of friction.

The core of Esfigmenou’s dispute with the centre of Orthodoxy is a rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church commenced by the late patriarch Athenagoras in 1964. That led to the lifting of a 1000-year barrier between the two churches and the start of a theological dialogue many years later.

Zealot’s terms

But the zealot monks consider the Roman Catholic Church heretical on such issues as papal primacy and other theological differences and say that dialogue and common prayer are forbidden.

“Ours is clearly an issue of faith. We are not against the patriarchate as an institution. We oppose individuals who engage in acts and statements not allowed by the Orthodox Church. The patriarch even gave communion to Catholics and Protestants during his recent trip to Ravenna,” Methodios told the Athens News, asserting that in principle he accepts the spiritual jurisdiction of the patriarchate on Athos. “For us to memorialise Vartholomeos he must move to restore the church’s situation as it was before 1924 (introduction of the new calendar), to halt communication with those of other faiths, to declare that he does not belong to dark Masonic lodges and such. Then we will go to him on our knees and kiss his feet. Because this is our patriarchate. That is what is important to understand. It is not something foreign,” he stressed.

Methodios is highly critical of Athos’ collective governing body (Epistasia) and for a series of harsh measures he says were taken against Esfigmenou. That includes an order barring the issuance of required special passes for visitors to their monastery and a more recent directive ordering small transport boats docked. Methodios said the Epistasia moved to tie up any funds Esfigmenou may have in bank accounts but found none.

A dangerous precedent

But Kasmiroglou, who signed the order enforcing the patriarchate’s decision to expel the monks, blames the Esfigmenou brotherhood for resisting his strenuous efforts over several years to bring them back into the ranks of the monastic state’s collective governance. He complains that they refused to send a representative on the grounds that they would have to pray together with fellow monks who retain ecclesiastical communion with the patriarch.

From the state’s point of view, insubordination such as that exhibited at Esfigmenou sets a dangerous precedent. Some officials believe that monasteries whose Orthodox monks are mainly foreign nationals—such as the Russian Orthodox at St. Panteleimon—could get the mistaken idea that they can ignore Athos’ collective governance and to their own way.

“I can tell you that violence will not be exercised against the monks as long as I’m here—unless issues are raised which affect the public order and security on Mount Athos. I have sworn to uphold the constitution and the law of the state,” Kasmiroglou said. He said that a couple of policemen will simply inform the monks on January 28 that their deadline to leave is up, without trying to remove them forcibly. “I am making every possible effort for a peaceful solution.”

Kasmiroglou noted that about a decade ago the Council of State upheld a decision to deport several monks from Athos simply on the grounds that they did not memorialise the patriarch, which violated the Athonite charter.

A statement issued by the chief secretariat of the patriarchate describes Esfigmenou as “the forbidden brotherhood” and “unrepentant schismatics, subject to the punishment of falling out of communion, to be recognised by all as such, until they repent and exhibit the fruit of repentance.”

Final Showdown?

Sources told the Athens News that the Athonite community is determined to elect a new Esfigmenou abbot and brotherhood within six weeks. The news monks would then be able to sue the existing brotherhood, which could lead to a court order for their eviction.

But Methodios is determined to fight back. “Under no circumstances do we accept the charge that we are schismatics. That is not in accord with church canons. A local church cannot declare that. Treaties guarantee that Athos is self-governing. The patriarch has a formal jurisdiction that he can exercise when he is Orthodox. When he preaches heresy, as Vartholomeos now does, we have a canonical right not to memorialise him,” Methodios told the Athens News in an interview.

“The only way they will get us out of here is by force, and even then maybe not standing up,” he declared.

Some of the monks’ supporters are as marginal as their own hard-line positions are within Orthodoxy. “Orthodoxy or death,” read a banner on the stage of central Athens’ Akadimos Theatre at an event organised by ELKIS, a tiny fringe group of vocal zealots. But the Esfigmenou dispute had brought them out in numbers. About 600 ELKIS members packed the theatre on January 21 to listen to an account of the dispute by Father Gregory of the monastery’s governing council—and then staged a march on parliament.

Kasmiroglou believes that while there may be more moderate monks at Esfigmenou, those in charge fear taking a more conciliatory stance so as not to alienate their outside supporters like those in ELKIS.

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