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
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
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
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."