Beliefnet
JERICHO, West Bank, Feb. 11--A proposed compromise to break the month-old deadlock over a contested monastery here involving two American nuns of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR) includes a sharing of the property for at least the short term with the rival Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church.

The tentative plan, mediated by U.S. consular officials here in recent days, calls for the monastery site to be divided between the two church organizations along an existing wall that runs through the property pending a full court review of the ownership dispute.

In the meantime, monks affiliated with the Moscow church will reside in the 19th century pilgrims' hospice on one side of the monastery grounds, while ROCOR representives--either the two nuns or monks--will occupy a two-room modular unit on the other side of the three-acre property.

A chapel with mosaics dating back to the sixth century--the central feature of the pilgrims' way station--is to be closed pending the court review of the ownership case, said Sister Maria Stephanopolous.

Sister Maria is the sister of former White House aide George Stepanopolous and is one of the two nuns who have been holed up in the monastery for more than a month.

"It was understood that this is only temporary," she said. "We have been living in this area for 70 years, and we want this issue to go to court. We want a Palestinian court to say who these properties belong to, with no more games."

In New York, Nicholas Ohotin, a ROCOR spokesman, said, Friday that "is a verbal understanding only. Nothing is on paper. That's all still being worked out."

Sisters Maria Stephanopolous, 40, and Xenia Cesena, 35, have been at the property since Jan. 15, staying put in an effort to maintain their church's claim to the site, which is within Palestinian-controlled West Bank territory.

Ohotin said it was unclear if the nuns would leave the monastery once a firm agreement is reached.

"Sister Maria told me today she is determined to remain there until the full property is returned to out church, as it should be," he said.

Palestinians want to turn the land over to the politically more powerful Moscow church, which claims it is the legal owner.

ROCOR officials have sought to bring U.S. pressure to bear on the Palestinians and gain a meeting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who so far has declined to schedule such a session.

The Jericho incident has gained international attention and drawn in government and church officials from the United States, Russia and the Palestinian Authority.

ROCOR was created by anti-communist exiles following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution who split off from the Soviet-dominated Moscow Orthodox Church patriarchate. The Moscow church today is closely aligned with the current Russian government.

The Palestinian Authority says the Moscow church is the rightful owner of the Jericho property as heir to the Tsarist-era Russian Orthodox Church, which originally purchased the site some 150 years ago.

The nuns have refused to leave the monastery, insisting that ROCOR has legal title.

"We are confident that we have legal title and insist only that the rule of law be followed," Sister Maria said. "We will just lay low in the property until then."

In Web site postings, Sister Maria has been highly critical of both Palestinian and Moscow church and Russian government actionsLetter to the World. She maintains that her church's religious freedom has been violated for political reasons.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Patriarch Alexy, head of the main Russian Orthodox Church, said the United States was responsible for the crisis Itar-Tass article.

The patriarch maintained that "U.S. authorities and American special services" wanted to keep the Moscow church and the ROCOR from uniting.

ROCOR has been steadily losing its properties in Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas to the more powerful Moscow church.

During Arafat's recent visit to Washington for further talks on the Middle East peace process, the issue came up during discussions between him and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, according to a U.S. official. The State Department is involved because ROCOR is a U.S.-based church group and the two nuns are Americans.

The Jericho incident marks the latest stage in the gradual but controversial transfer of "white" Russian church sites in the Holy Land to the "red" Moscow-based patriarchate. The transfers have been slowly taking placeover the past 50 years.

The two nuns managed to enter the Jericho monastery compound--where Moscow-church representatives are also holed up to support their claim to ownership--after Palestinian Authority security police staged a surprise raid and expelled five ROCOR monks who lived at the site.

The two women have refused to budge and Palestinian police have grudgingly allowed them to remain as diplomatic maneuvering continues.

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