The Greek government sent riot police to Mount Athos in Northern Greece this morning, to forcibly remove a group of monks from Esphigmenou monastery, one of the twenty monasteries that form part of this famous Eastern orthodox complex. Esphigmenou monastery is renowned for the war it has waged against the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which it accuses of betraying the Orthodox Church by opening ecumenical dialogue with the Vatican. A war which has been going on since the 70s. According to an Associated Press report, the traditionalist monks threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police and judicial officials as they attempted to storm the building .Patriarch Bartholomew declared the monks of Esphigmenou an illegal brotherhood in 2002 and ordered their eviction. But the monks ignored this, claiming the Patriarch of Constantinople does not have the power to evict them.
The conflict has been going on for decades: it all began when Paul VI visited Patriarch Athenagoras in 1967. The Esphigmenous community protested against the two religious leaders praying together by famously raising black flags displaying the message “Orthodoxy or death”. Patriarch Bartholomew decided to resolve the question by contacting the Greek Foreign Minister who - according to the complex jurisdiction regulations which apply to the Hagiorite institutions - is in charge of the security of the twenty monasteries which make up the monastic community of Mount Athos. Over the years, the Greek authorities have tried almost everything to get the Esphigmenou community to back down. They even tried cutting off food supplies to the monks, but in vain.
The situation was complicated further after a Greek court granted an injunction allowing the new brotherhood Bartholomew wants installed, to replace the old monastic community. There are 500 thousand Euros at stake, which the European Union could dish out for restoration work to be carried out on the 11th century monastery. But given the current crisis Greece finds itself in, the funding has been yet another cause for tension between the rebel monks and Constantinople.
Local sources say about twenty monks have barricaded themselves inside their monastery. Some supporters apparently joined them this afternoon. On the Esphigmenou monastery website, the monks are calling on faithful to support them and accuse the government of “giving the green light to the police to raid the monastery,” ignoring the fact that “this could cause bloodshed among the monks at Mount Athos.” .