Sisters Maria Stephanopolous, sister of former United States presidential adviser George Stephanopolous, and Xenia Cesena took up residence in the Garden Monastery on Jan. 15 when the Palestinian Authority seized the property belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (the so-called "White Church"). The Palestinians arrested and expelled the monks who were on hand, then announced their intention of turning the compound over to the Moscow Patriarchy, known as the "Red Church."
But the two nuns refused to leave the property until it is returned to the White Church, and turned the affair into an international diplomatic confrontation by involving American and Russian embassy officials.
However, Sister Xenia left after 45 days because of her health. On March 30, Sister Maria returned to her duties at the Bethany Community of the Resurrection of Christ in the Jerusalem area.
Two new monks replaced the nuns in a trailer at the monastery, where Palestinian soldiers remain posted at the gate. The monks are not allowed near any buildings on the property. Access to the chapel is denied to White Church personnel and to Russian Orthodox pilgrims.
Since the Synod of Whites' Bishops is based in the U.S. and Stephanopolous comes from a prominent Greek-American family, U.S. diplomats intervened in the standoff. Palestinian authorities promised in February to work out a peaceful agreement, but nothing has changed after three months.
Sister Maria told Newsroom that she hopes for a political resolution to the conflict. "The matter cannot be solved in the Palestinian court; the legal system is not functioning in the PA," she said. "They make autocratic decisions based on political scheming and carry it out by military means. We hope that after Easter our bishops will meet with Palestinian and Moscow Church authorities and there will be some sort of compromise."
Compromise will be difficult, however, because the Moscow Patriarchy does not want the White Church "to have one meter of the compound," Sister Maria acknowledged. "Their position is that we are totally illegitimate."
The taking of the Garden Monastery was the third seizure of White Church property in the Holy Land in the last decade. Although the PA technically handed over the Jericho property to the Moscow Patriarchy, the monastery is rumored to become a consulate for the Russian government.
PA leader Yasser Arafat, eager to win Moscow's recognition of a Palestinian state and possible Russian financial or military aid, ordered the transfer of the White Church's property to the Kremlin-backed Red Church, claiming that the Moscow Patriarchy is the rightful heir of Russian Orthodox property in the Holy Land.
However, Iliyas Iskanderov, press secretary of the Russian embassy in Tel-Aviv, told Newsroom that although the Russian Federation has a diplomatic presence in Gaza and the PA has an embassy in Moscow, talk about a consulate in Jericho is baseless.
White Church leaders contend that there is no need for the Red Church to violently seize churches the Moscow Patriarchy has not preserved, while in Russia thousands of churches need to be saved.
Meanwhile, there is mounting concern that the same type of takeover will be attempted on White Church property in Bethany where the Russian Orthodox Church, in exile for decades, has run a Christian school for more than 400 Arab girls. There also is great uneasiness in the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene and Convent of the Ascension, both on the Mount of Olives. Palestinian authorities negotiating the future of Jerusalem want to be recognized as the protector of Christian holy sites there.
Nuns of the Mary Magdalene Convent, a Jerusalem landmark with its golden onion domes, hope that the Mount of Olives will not fall under full Palestinian control because it is surrounded by Jewish cemeteries. Palestinians, they have said, have a poorer record of infringing on the rights of Christians than do Israelis.
Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchy continues to castigate the White Church in the Russian media, accusing members of splitting the church and working as agents of the CIA. Leaders in Moscow insist that Moscow's position that all pre-revolution property in the Holy Land belongs to the Red Church is accepted by Orthodox believers in Russia with "joy and profound gratitude."
Last week, the Synod of Russian Orthodox Bishops Abroad addressed Orthodox believers in an official epistle published in Russia. Metropolitan Vitaly, head of the White Church who resides in New York City, appealed for reconciliation between the White and Red churches and an end to property disputes in the Holy Land.
"It is precisely the Russian emigration which was able to save these churches from confiscation by foreign states and from destruction, carefully restoring them with its own means as Russia Abroad, which is open with all its heart both to the Russian past (tsarist Russia) and a Russia of the future," the bishop wrote. "Therefore, this is in actuality our joint heritage--the heritage of the whole Russian people, and without fail it will be such as a result of the restoration of the one Church of Russia, which stands in the truth."