2016-06-30

JERICHO, West Bank -- The road to Jericho taken by an Orthodox nun at the center of an international dispute over a Holy Land monastery leads to a two-room trailer surrounded by an orchard of grapefruit and lemon trees.

Inside one room of the trailer is a table dominated by icons of Jesus and Mary and the infant Christ where Sister Maria Stephanopoulos, formerly of Cleveland, will spend six or seven hours each day in prayer during Great Lent. Outside are Palestinian Authority guards who make sure she does not stray too close to the church on the grounds of the Jericho Garden Monastery.

The sister of former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos is now in her third month of self-imposed exile. Holed up in a corner of the monastery grounds, she is protesting the compound's takeover by the Moscow-based "Red" Russian Orthodox Church. Sister Maria belongs to the rival "White" Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, founded by exiles of the Russian Revolution.

Sister Maria, 40, said she hopes her defiant vigil will bring pressure to bear on Palestinian authorities to allow the White monks to return, expel what she calls "Soviet" monks and hand jurisdiction over the monastery back to her faction of the church.

She is hoping Pope John Paul II will address the dispute during his visit this week in the Holy Land. But only divine intervention, she said, 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 Revolution in 1917, when the communist regime took control of the church. Opponents of the communists set up a U.S.-based church in exile and controlled many of the Russian shrines in the Holy Land. The monastery property was purchased in 1874 by Archimandrite Antonin Kasputin for the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem. The "Red" Russian Orthodox Church maintains it is the sole legal successor 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 to give the property to the Russian Orthodox Church. Palestinian police raided the property near Jericho's central market and expelled White clerics. Sister Maria and Sister Xenia Cesana of San Francisco rushed to the monastery during the raid and refused to leave. Sister Xenia left earlier this month, but Sister Maria has remained inside.

Clad in a black cloak and head covering, Sister Maria remembers being pulled away from the chapel that first day and tossed out the gate by Russian monks.

"That was the scariest moment," she said in an interview. "My head-covering was pulled up and I couldn't breathe."

That night, Palestinian guards let her back in and she slept in the courtyard, surrounded by soldiers in a scene that she said brought to mind Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus in the Scripture, she was outside in the cold, prepared to be arrested and taken away.

For 45 days, the nuns were isolated in a damp shed without bathing or cooking facilities. Since then, Sister Maria has been living in a trailer provided by the Palestinians at the far end of the grounds. Other sisters are allowed to visit, and some take turns staying with her in the trailer. Sister Maria spends most of her day praying and reading. Particularly meaningful, she said, are stories of the martyrs of the White church, who suffered under communist oppression. "We believe we are the voice of the Russian Orthodox Church," she said. "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 Trinity Monastery in upstate New York, she found herself gravitating over the years to the "White" Russian Orthodox Church. In 1987, she spent a year as a missionary in Chile, and in 1991 she entered the monastery as a novice. Last year, she was tonsured -- a ceremony marking a step closer to final vows -- and given the name Maria. Since September 1998, she had been working at a school for
Palestinian girls in Bethany. "You can talk about being like Christ, but really living it is what you see in this church," she said. In the case of the monastery, she said, "It's an issue of respect for the status quo and religious rights and handling matters in a court of law," she said. In part because of her family's prominence, the monastery issue has attracted attention. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has raised the issue with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York sent a letter of protest. "This is the property of the Russian Church, so it was given back to them," said Ibrahim Kandalaft, a Greek Orthodox adviser to Arafat on Christian affairs. However, he said the authority is working on a compromise that may involve giving the rival church four acres somewhere else. Sitting in her small trailer, Sister Maria said there are times her hopes are raised by the prospects of congressional resolutions or the possibility the pope, following up on a recent agreement between the Vatican and Palestinian authorities regarding religious freedom, might take 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, I just want to do God's will."
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