JERICHO, West Bank -- The road to Jericho taken by an Orthodox nunat the center of an international dispute over a Holy Land monasteryleads to a two-room trailer surrounded by an orchard of grapefruit andlemon trees.
Inside one room of the trailer is a table dominated by icons ofJesus and Mary and the infant Christ where Sister Maria Stephanopoulos,formerly of Cleveland, will spend six or seven hours each day in prayerduring Great Lent. Outside are Palestinian Authority guards who makesure she does not stray too close to the church on the grounds of theJericho Garden Monastery.
The sister of former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos is now inher third month of self-imposed exile. Holed up in a corner of themonastery grounds, she is protesting the compound's takeover by theMoscow-based "Red" Russian Orthodox Church. Sister Maria belongs to therival "White" Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, founded by exilesof the Russian Revolution.
Sister Maria, 40, said she hopes her defiant vigil will bringpressure to bear on Palestinian authorities to allow the White monks toreturn, expel what she calls "Soviet" monks and hand jurisdiction overthe monastery back to her faction of the church.
She is hoping Pope John Paul II will address the dispute during hisvisit this week in the Holy Land. But only divine intervention, shesaid, will tell her when to give up her protest. "God put us in here and he'll resolve it as he sees fit," she said."For now, it's just pray and be a witness." The dispute between the churches goes back to the Russian Revolutionin 1917, when the communist regime took control of the church. Opponentsof the communists set up a U.S.-based church in exile and controlledmany of the Russian shrines in the Holy Land. The monastery property was purchased in 1874 by ArchimandriteAntonin Kasputin for the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem.The "Red" Russian Orthodox Church maintains it is the sole legalsuccessor of the pre-revolutionary church. Two months ago, after a visit by Patriarch Alexii II from Moscow,the Palestinian Authority agreed to the Red church leader's appeal togive the property to the Russian Orthodox Church. Palestinian policeraided the property near Jericho's central market and expelled Whiteclerics. Sister Maria and Sister Xenia Cesana of San Francisco rushed tothe monastery during the raid and refused to leave. Sister Xenia leftearlier this month, but Sister Maria has remained inside.
Clad in a black cloak and head covering, Sister Maria remembersbeing pulled away from the chapel that first day and tossed out the gateby Russian monks.
"That was the scariest moment," she said in an interview. "Myhead-covering was pulled up and I couldn't breathe."That night, Palestinian guards let her back in and she slept in thecourtyard, surrounded by soldiers in a scene that she said brought tomind Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus in the Scripture, shewas outside in the cold, prepared to be arrested and taken away. For 45 days, the nuns were isolated in a damp shed without bathingor cooking facilities. Since then, Sister Maria has been living in atrailer provided by the Palestinians at the far end of the grounds. Other sisters are allowed to visit, and some take turns staying withher in the trailer. Sister Maria spends most of her day praying andreading. Particularly meaningful, she said, are stories of the martyrsof the White church, who suffered under communist oppression. "We believe we are the voice of the Russian Orthodox Church," shesaid. "All those bishops who were killed, we are of one mind with them." In high school, she was Anastasia Stephanopoulos, active in SS.Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland Heights,where her father, Robert, was pastor. But after visiting Holy TrinityMonastery in upstate New York, she found herself gravitating over theyears to the "White" Russian Orthodox Church. In 1987, she spent a year as a missionary in Chile, and in 1991 sheentered the monastery as a novice. Last year, she was tonsured -- aceremony marking a step closer to final vows -- and given the nameMaria. Since September 1998, she had been working at a school forPalestinian girls in Bethany. "You can talk about being like Christ, but really living it is whatyou see in this church," she said. In the case of the monastery, she said, "It's an issue of respectfor the status quo and religious rights and handling matters in a courtof law," she said. In part because of her family's prominence, the monastery issue hasattracted attention. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hasraised the issue with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and DemocraticCongresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York sent a letter of protest. "This is the property of the Russian Church, so it was given back tothem," said Ibrahim Kandalaft, a Greek Orthodox adviser to Arafat onChristian affairs. However, he said the authority is working on a compromise that mayinvolve giving the rival church four acres somewhere else. Sitting in her small trailer, Sister Maria said there are times herhopes are raised by the prospects of congressional resolutions or thepossibility the pope, following up on a recent agreement between theVatican and Palestinian authorities regarding religious freedom, mighttake an interest in her case. But Sister Maria said she tries to leave everything up to God. "I just ask to do his will all the time," she said. "During the day,I get excited about resolutions and the pope's coming. In the end, Ijust want to do God's will."