In a relatively unprecedented move, Greek police arrested the Rector of the thousand-year-old Vathipedi Monastery, Father Ephraim, on Christmas Eve. He had just returned to the monastery, which is located on the most sacred ground in all of Orthodox Christendom, which we have now discovered to be the only semi-autonomous region of Mount Athos.
Father Ephraim was arraigned in Athens two days ago. It is hard to say just what this is all about, but the timing is, to put it mildly, dramatic.
The scandal started two years ago, when the revelation of some very sketchy land deals brokered by this same monastery rocked the Greek government. These business-savvy monks had traded some relatively worthless land by a lake in north-central Greece; land that had been ceded to them by a Byzantine emperor centuries before for extensive real estate holdings in Athens, costing the Greek government (and the taxpayers) an estimated $130 million or more.
It was unclear how the thing had been arranged, but the scandal led to the defeat of the ruling conservative coalition of the New Democracy in late 2009. This scandal was then folded into the story of the then-emerging Greek economic free-fall by Vanity Fair in the fall of 2010 [see here for RD’s earlier coverage —Eds] .
A great deal that has happened since then: revelations of staggering Greek debt early in the new year; grinding new austerity measures imposed by Europe in the summer; a threatened Greek default in October; the inexplicable decision by the Greek Prime Minister George Panadreiou to call for a nationwide referendum on a deal immediately after the Europeans had hammered it out, thereby enabling the Greeks to pay off their debt to French and German banks at fifty cents on the euro. The shock of this unexpected proposal caused Papandreiou’s almost immediate resignation, and the austerity measures he was forced to impose are almost sure to bring down the left-center coalition of PASOK in the next Greek elections.
But there are other details brewing here, some of which we have also reported at RD, and all of which make this recent arrest seem far more interesting, and suspicious. Prime Minister Papandreiou made a trip to Mount Athos himself in October, shortly before his fatal referendum call, in order to have a private meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Meanwhile, Father Ephraim was preparing for a trip to Russia, nominally to take one of the treasures of the Vathopedi Monastery, the Saint Mary Belt, on a tour of that reemergingly Orthodox country. But this remarkably well-connected Abbot had several meetings with Vladimir Putin as well.
Father Ephraim returned to the Monastery, and was promptly arrested, inspiring sympathetic demonstrations by religious supporters in Greece, and cries of outrage among his political allies in Russia.
It is too early to say what all of this will means, but the astonishing complicity of a religious institution—and a monastery, no less—in real estate wheeling-dealing and international politics is intriguing.
And to be sure, Father Ephraim was not working alone. He made his deals with government officials in Greece; officials who are currently positioning themselves to take back the position they lost two years ago when this story first came to light. It appears as if they may be trying to inoculate themselves against further scandal before they resume power by putting a priest on ice.
It is obvious that the most visible religious institutions—from the Vatican, to Mount Athos, to the Southern Baptist Convention—are enormous bureaucracies virtually swimming in cash. Their relative immunity from taxation and the normal rules of fiscal oversight are troubling. But this case is especially jarring for the contrast it draws out between the grinding poverty of the Greek people under their new program of enforced austerity and the immeasurable wealth of the Orthodox Church. The same contrast will be drawn out in coming months in Rome, and I daresay in the U.S. as well.
The very public arrest of Catholic priests in Belgium or the U.S. for sexual crimes is one thing; the revelation of the Greek (or Roman) Church’s complicity in white-collar theft, pork-barrel politicking and a form of nepotism whose sole purpose has been to line the clerical elites’ own pockets is something else again.
This is a story we should follow closely.