Monastery on Mount Athos in Land Deal Scandal

A pearl of spiritual advice from Abbot Ephraim (var. “Abbot Efrem”), the Abbot of the monastery of Vatopedi (var. “Vatopedion”, “Vatopediou”) on Mount Athos in Greece:

‘Athonite monasticism is both a signpost to Heaven and a bridge over which pass true spiritual provisions for the world.’

Perhaps those “spiritual provisions” include cheap land in Greece that once belonged to the church and has passed to the Greek state, in return for which the monastery has received some more valuable real estate. From the New York Times:

A scandal over more than 250 questionable land swaps is threatening to bring down the Greek government and tarnishing a storied Greek monastic society.

Two government officials have already resigned over the dealings, in which a wealthy Orthodox monastery traded cheap tracts of lakeside property for prime public real estate, including a housing venue for the 2004 Athens Olympics. An initial judicial inquiry put the loss to the state at $136 million.

Revelations by the news media of the deal details and grainy pictures showing government officials hobnobbing with Abbot Ephraim…have drawn furious accusations of corruption and breach of faith…

Ephraim, however, is unrepentent – Kathimerini reports:

Despite the intervention last week of a court inspector who found that 270 hectares of land around Lake Vistonida in northern Greece should never have been given to the Vatopedi Monastery, the latter has issued a statement saying that it is still entitled to the land. In a memorandum that was also sent to Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the monastery’s head monk Ephraim claims that Vatopedi acted completely within the law when it swapped property with the state and that it is the legal owner of the land.

“Vartholomaios” is the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. The Archbishop of Athens has been quick to distance the Greek Church from the scandal:

The head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, said he was “astounded” by the controversial land deal…The monastic community comes under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul and, as such, Ieronymos is powerless to take any action. “The Church of Greece has no authority over Mount Athos, just at Mount Athos has no authority over the Church of Greece,” he said.

Ephraim is from Cyprus, and his brother Nikos Koutsou (var. “Nicos Koutsou”) is a politician there. According to the Cyprus Mail:

As the story unfolded, attention became focused on Koutsou after a letter, allegedly from a group of Mount Athos monks to the Greek parliament, which condemned the actions of the Cypriot abbot.

It also alleges that Efrem used, and continues to use monastery finances to fund Koutsou’s political career.

Koutsou questioned the existence of the alleged group of monks.

“Politically speaking, I have to say that it is only political dummies who, instead of having the courage to find reason to oppose me openly, hide behind a group of mentally ill people in order to attack their political opponents,” Koutsou said at a news conference yesterday.

Koutsou claims this is a ploy to discredit opponents of the 2004 UN peace plan for Cyprus. Ephraim is also under fire over another matter:

…This week , the monastery’s Cypriot Abbot, Father Efrem, has ordered confectioner Giorgos Thrasivoulidi to vacate the premises of his business, which have come under the ownership of Vatopedi.

During his last visit to Cyprus in 2007 Efrem visited the owner of Morello patisserie in Paphos with his financial adviser, informing Thrasivoulidi he was being evicted, as the Monastery planned to build an office block where his business is located.

Speaking to the Cyprus Mail yesterday, Thrasivoulidi said he objected to the eviction, pointing out that his lease contract did not expire until 2010, and threatened that legal action would be taken.

The Vatopedi monastery has a celebrity reputation, and Prince Charles has made a number of visits; Bloomberg News profiled Vatopedi, and Mount Athos in general, in 2005:

…Long before global paladins such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Citigroup Chief Executive Charles Prince embarked on their annual pilgrimage to Davos, Mount Athos was celebrated as the Western world’s most fashionable retreat where leaders came to ponder their souls and the state of the world.

…”Deciding on a monastery is a metaphysical management decision,” is how [Fund manager George Karaplis, the former chief financial officer of Hellenic Telecommunications Organization] describes the process of selecting a retreat. “The spirits, God, call it what you want, tell you what monastery to go to.”

“Every CEO needs to visit Mount Athos,” the 48-year-old fund manager adds. “I’ve accompanied senior executives from Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley, but the privacy of the experience, the transformation these men experience on Mount Athos prevents me from revealing their names.”

…”Vatopediou is the original [World Economic Forum],” explains Karaplis, who since 1991 has made 70 pilgrimages to Mount Athos.

…”I’ve spent hours listening to professionals, businessmen and politicians,” Father Irenaios recalls after an evening meal of grain and mountain grasses. “All of them have great problems in focusing on what is important. They all come to Vatopediou with a need to understand the difficulties they face in work and in their lives.”

Filling small glasses with a fiery eau de vie called “tsipouro,” Father Germanos, the deputy abbot, nods in agreement and adds, “All businessmen come to Vatopediou feeling a great emptiness.”

Maybe that “transformation” was a two-way affair…

The Greek Church was mired in a series scandals in 2005 that encompassed, according the Guardian, “skulduggery, sexual improprieties, trial rigging, drug and antiquities smuggling”. One newspaper published every tabloid editor’s dream: “photographs of a 91-year-old bishop naked in bed with a nubile young woman”.

4 Responses

  1. The scandal on the land deal should be resolved as soon as possible to avoid further problems.

  2. […] to worry about the monastery’s prospects under his tenure, given his remarkable ability to negotiate profitable land-deals. Further details of the conference can be found on the WPF website, under the heading […]

  3. […] previously wrote about Vatopedi and Ephraim here. Ephraim was also at a WPF conference on the subject of Mount Athos which took place in […]

  4. […] The land swap has been a source of controversy since 2008, as I blogged here. […]

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