Greek Monastery in Arizona Desert Accused of Brainwashing, Anti-Semitism

Tucson-based television news channel KVOA reports on a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Arizona desert that has been a source of controversy (link added):

For the past 8 months, the Eyewitness News 4 Investigators have been documenting several families’ claims of brainwashing and inappropriate teachings at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery.

The monastery is one of eighteen in the USA founded by Father Ephraim of Philotheou, a Greek monk who lived for years on Mount Athos, Greece’s famous monastic centre. The report focuses on complaints from parents unhappy that their young adult children have chosen the monastic life, and includes input from a disaffected ex-member, David Smith:

He says, he was told to live with his wife like brother and sister. He also says, his spiritual advisor, Father Ephraim’s second-in-command, told him to whip himself when he thought of sex.

DAVID SMITH: “[Ephraim’s second-in-command] told me I should cut the electrical cord, which I did, and he told me to do it on an inconspicuous part of my body. I chose, you know, my upper thighs…In confession, I was told about the protocols [of the Elders of Zion]. It’s where I was taught that the end of the world is coming, that there’s a shadow government that controls the United States, that FEMA had concentration camps set up to destroy families with.”

Smith’s website can be seen here. It certainly does seem strange that a monastery would encourage a married man to embrace celibacy (especially as the Greek Orthodox Church has married priests). As for the Protocols:

The Eyewitness News 4 Investigators found, Father Ephraim himself makes reference to The Protocols of Zion. That’s a book that claims there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy for world domination.

In one of his own writings, Father Ephraim references the Protocols. He calls the Zionists “infamous” and the Protocols “notorious”, but, religious experts say, any reference at all to that writing goes against Greek Orthodox faith.

The full quote, from A Call from the Holy Mountain, is provided on a hostile website set up by some of the parents:

“One Sunday, a preacher delivered a sermon on “love your enemies”. On the Sunday after, he spoke against alcohol addiction – about the havoc it wrought among Christian peoples. Incidently [sic], the infamous Zionists greatly boast about this in their notorious ‘Protocols’.

A blog set up to oppose Smith, Joyful Light, offers a defence:

It is important to note, in the quotes cited by Smith, Elder Ephraim speaks against the Zionists, not Judaism or the Jewish people…Many people of greatly varied political and religious views are opposed to Zionism for many different reasons, and it would be ridiculous to claim that all of them are anti-Semites. There are even Jewish people and organizations that oppose Zionism. Are they also anti-Semites? This is plainly ridiculous.

Well, I’d agree with some of that – but the question is why Ephraim speaks “against the Zionists”, not why someone else might. First, and most obviously, why does Ephraim cite a forged document composed by Russian anti-Semites? And this quote provides a bit more insight into his thinking:

Papists, Protestants, Jehovah Witnesses, Freemasons, Unionists, Ecumenists and any other “root of bitterness” – all these have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast. These shall make war with Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them; for He is the Lord of Lords, and King of Kings; and they that are with Him are called, and chosen, and faithful.

It seems pretty clear that Ephraim’s opposition to Zionism has nothing to do with Palestinian rights, but rather is rooted in conspiracy theories and a wider hostility against anything outside of Greek Orthodoxy. And given that Ephraim first entered Mt Athos at the age of 19 in 1948, I wouldn’t really expect much else. Anti-Semitism has always been part of the religious culture of Mount Athos; Christopher Merrill’s book Looking for God on the Holy Mountain shows that it is still present. However, Joyful Light claims that

…the Elder’s own personal medical doctor in Phoenix is a Jew. A lawyer that the Monastery uses is also a Jew. In addition, there are a number of Monks who are from Jewish backgrounds, and at least one of the Orthodox Priests who regularly visits St. Anthony’s Monastery is a Jewish convert to Christianity. I know two of these people quite well, and they have never complained of any anti-Semitic teaching coming from Elder Ephraim.

Ephraim’s spokesman Father Anthony tells KVOA that “the monastery prays for Israel and the United States every day.”

KVOA also raises the question of the financing of the American monasteries. The response from Fr Anthony is somewhat shifty and vague:

[Kristi] TEDESCO: How much money was spent building the monastery in Florence [Arizona]?

FATHER ANTHONY: A few thousand dollars.

TEDESCO: How much?

FATHER ANTHONY: A few thousand, I don’t know how many.

TEDESCO: A few thousand? Wouldn’t you say closer to millions?


…TEDESCO: Where is the money coming from?…

FATHER ANTHONY: From the United States. From people… From believers. I don’t know from where.

On the other hand, some of the complaints made are a bit weak. Here’s one of the parents:

JOHN PANTANIZOPOULOS: “Their brain is run by the monastery. They can’t read whatever they want to read. They have to ask for permission for everything they do.”

KVOA responds to that, and to Smith’s claims of self-flagellation, by noting that:

All of this may seem bizarre, but religious experts say it’s all very typical of monasticism. It’s how novices and monks are disciplined in their religion.

It’s a shame we don’t hear a bit more from these “religious experts”, who could have provided a bit more context. The only expert we actually see is a hostile commentator; this is Bradley Nassif, who works in Evangelical-Orthodox dialogue. A short profile elsewhere notes:

A consultant for Time and Christianity Today magazines, he has been a television commentator for the documentary series “Christianity: The First Thousand Years” and “The Jesus Experience: Jesus Among the Slavs.” Much of his work over the past 30 years has been devoted to introducing evangelical students and faculty to the riches of the Orthodox tradition.

Rick Ross has gathered together some earlier news reports on Ephraim.

(Hat tip: Cult News Network)

(Name variations: Father Ephraim, Father Ephrem, Elder Ephraim, Elder Ephrem, Geronda Ephraim)