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Christmas in Jail, on Mount Athos
Under arrest in Greece, the abbot of the most important monastery of the holy mountain. The patriarch of Moscow calls for his release. The patriarch of Constantinople is silent. The rivalry between the two rekindled by the voyage in Russia of a relic of the Virgin Mary

by Sandro Magister






ROME, January 2, 2012 – A bitter Christmas on Mount Athos. Regular readers of www.chiesa are familiar with the holy mountain, since every year, on Pentecost, this site presents this account:

> Pentecost on Mount Athos

They know that on Mount Athos, in the Great Lavra, the relic of the belt of the Virgin Mary is kept.

They know that at Vatopedi, the most illustrious of the twenty monasteries, there is a hegumen, an abbot, named Ephraim, who for years has been the strongest and most authoritative personality of all Athos.

Hegumen Ephraim was in Russia last December, bringing with him the relic of the Virgin's belt. And the faithful came flocking to venerate it not by the thousands, but by the millions – some say three, some five – to the various cities where the relic stopped.

But at his return to Athos, on December 24 – Christmas Eve on the Latin calendar, which is 13 days ahead of the calendar of the holy mountain – the Greek police knocked on the door of the monastery of Vatopedi, asked for Hegumen Ephraim, and arrested him.

Since Tuesday, December 27, Hegumen Ephraim has been in a Greek jail, in spite of his advanced age and precarious health. The prosecutor accuses him of being implicated in an illegal sale of land, on the part of his monastery, to the detriment of the Greek state.

The investigation had been underway since 2008, and seemed routine. But in recent days it suddenly crystallized in this unprecedented arrest, in a country in which the Orthodox Christian religion has a privileged status, with even more pronounced autonomy for Mount Athos.

From Moscow, the metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, second in command of the Russian Orthodox Church and its foreign minister, reacted with a blistering interview with the agency Interfax.

Hegumen Ephraim – Hilarion said – is such a prominent and respected figure all over the world, his zeal in giving vitality to the monasticism of Athos is so impressive and recognized by all, that his arrest cannot be anything other than "a hostile attack on the monks of Athos and on the whole Orthodox Church":

> Metropolitan Hilarion: "A hostile attack against Athonite monks and Orthodoxy"

Again from Moscow, Patriarch Kirill sent a message to the president of the Greek republic, Karolos Papoulias, to express the sadness of "millions of believers of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries" at the news of the arrest of such an illustrious monk, "precisely in the days in which the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Nativity of Christ," and to ask for his liberation:

> "To His Excellency Mr. Karolos Papoulias..."

Mount Athos with its monasteries is under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. But in the face of the immediate and vigorous protests of the Russian Church, what is striking is the silence of Bartholomew I, who from Istanbul did not issue any comment on the arrest of Hegumen Ephraim.

The Athens newspaper "Ekathimerini" has given special emphasis to this contrast. And it has attributed it to the rivalry between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople, the former of which has for some time been highly active in drawing Athos into its own orbit. The pilgrimage of Hegumen Ephraim to Russia with the relic of the belt of the Virgin is believed to be part of this plan, naturally distasteful to Bartholomew I:

> What the Ephraim case tells us

The fact is that the silence of the patriarch of Constantinople on the egregious arrest of the leading figure of the monks of Athos appears even more thunderous than the protests of the patriarchate of Moscow.