February 15, 2003--Displaying a banner proclaiming "Orthodoxy or death," 116 Greek monks have defied an eviction notice and said they have no intention of relinquishing their 1,000-year-old monastery on the Aegean Sea to a higher spiritual authority -- or to a civil one.
They have been holed up since Jan. 28, surviving on small amounts of food and refusing to leave a castlelike fortress built to withstand assaults by pirates. Their bishop, the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul, issued the order to vacate after years of being snubbed by the ascetics, who said he was getting too cozy with the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy's arch rival for a millennium.
One monk has died in the standoff, a 25-year-old who drove a tractor into a ravine last weekend trying to avoid a police blockade that the monks say prevents them from leaving the property to buy food, medicine and other provisions.
Civil authorities say six police officers patrol the area "to preserve calm and order" but have no instructions to stop traffic to or from Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos, one of 20 religious communities on a 31-mile-long peninsula in northeastern Greece."We don't trust them," said Father Methodius, abbot of the monastery, referring to the officials who say the monks are free to come and go. "We don't venture beyond [the monastery grounds]. We're afraid of being apprehended."
Aristos Kasmiroglou, governor of Mount Athos, denied that those who leave the premises will be detained. "That's categorically untrue," he said. If authorities were serious about blockading the monastery, he added, "we'd need a police force the size of northern Greece's."
What's clear is that Bartholomew I, the Orthodox leader who oversees Mount Athos, has decided it's time to end the dispute with the Esphigmenou monks, who for 30 years have refused to honor him and his predecessors in their prayers and worship. And the bishop has support from the Greek constitution, which recognizes Mount Athos as a self-governing region that spiritually is under "the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate."
An article of the constitution regarding Mount Athos, reaffirmed by the European Union, of which Greece is part, proclaims that "heterodox or schismatic persons shall be prohibited from dwelling therein." Last month, soon after Bartholomew declared the Esphigmenou monks schismatics, local police delivered the eviction notice.
Implementation of Bartholomew's eviction order was made easier by the assent of 19 of the peninsula's 20 monasteries, whose representatives sit on a governing board called the Holy Committee. In decades past, many of those monasteries refused to commemorate the patriarchate when it tried to force them to use the Gregorian calendar (1924) and when it lifted the 900-year-old "anathemas" -- ecclesiastical condemnations -- against the Roman Catholic Church (1965). All returned to using the Julian calendar, and all but Esphigmenou have returned to favor with the patriarchate.
Often called Zealots, a term also used for 1st-century Jews who revolted against Rome and died at the mountain fortress Masada, the Esphigmenou monks disagree with Bartholomew on what some might consider arcane points of theology and canon law. But the question of whether a minority group within a church or denomination can defy church leaders because they disagree on religious practice and principles is a common issue in today's world of religion.
In the United States, "renewal" groups have formed in mainline denominations -- including the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- because they believe denominational leadership has betrayed the beliefs and practices on which the organization was founded.
Disputes most often have centered on such issues as homosexuality, abortion and the ordination of female priests, with the leadership arguing that Scripture should be reinterpreted in light of modern culture and problems and renewal groups contending that Scripture and tradition are immutable.
Congregations that claim the right to call their own priests and set their own spiritual agendas typically have been forced to accept the leadership's decisions -- or leave the denomination.
Needle-threading theology aside, the Greek monks have broader convictions they are willing to die for. Most notably, they believe Bartholomew has developed a too-close relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, with which the Eastern Church split in 1054 over matters of doctrine and politics.
The patriarch has administrative authority over one of the 15 branches of Orthodoxy, a branch that includes the 1.5 million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and smaller jurisdictions such as Mount Athos (the church in Greece became independent of Istanbul in 1850). But as head of the traditional seat of Orthodoxy, Bartholomew is considered "first among equals" in the ranks of patriarchs and spiritual leader of the world's 250 million to 300 million Orthodox Christians.
Methodius, the abbot, said Bartholomew has supported ecumenical dialogues with the Catholic Church that could lead to reunification, which would compromise the one True Church -- Orthodoxy -- and be a betrayalof the true teachings of Christianity. He also fears that if reunification was to occur, Orthodox would have to accept the Roman doctrines of papal primacy and infallibility -- concepts most Orthodox bitterly reject.
He accused Bartholomew of making such "heretical statements" as that salvation can be achieved no matter what religion a person follows. And he said the patriarch has led services where Catholics and other non-Orthodox Christians took part in Communion -- something not allowed by church law.
"He teaches and practices things that are against Orthodox teaching," Methodius said through an interpreter in a telephone interview from the monastery.
The office of the patriarchate did not respond to an interview request. But Metropolitan Maximos, bishop of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh, said Bartholomew has never given Communion to non-Orthodox and defended the patriarch's efforts to resolve centuries-old differences between the Orthodox and Roman churches.
"The purpose of dialogue is to define the issues and create the possibility of discussion" and revisions in doctrine, said Maximos, co-chair of an ongoing symposium called the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.
Esphigmenou's "ignorant monks," as he called them, "think you are ready to betray your position, to give up the beautiful tradition of the Eastern fathers. But that's not it at all. We want to share it."
Methodius said people can describe him and his colleagues as they want, but they are the true defenders of the Orthodox faith, the only route to salvation. And they don't intend to give up, even as their food and medical supplies diminish and their monks -- from 23 to 98 years old -- face death or eviction.
Church and civil authorities have "imposed an embargo that is oppressive," the abbot said .
"This type of action must be eliminated from the civilized world, and everyone must be allowed to practice religion freely," he said. "When we have a spiritual difference within [the church] it cannot be resolved by the means they are using."
The monks have filed suit in Greece's highest court, the Council of State, seeking an injunction against the eviction order. Such cases can take six months to a year before a decision is rendered, said Kasmiroglou, the governor.
He accused the monks of seeking sympathy by exaggerating the police threat and their limited ability to obtain provisions. There are no plans for forced entry, at least until the court rules on the monks' suit, he said.
Methodius said that the monks are used to eating small amounts of food, only one meal a day. Even so, the stock of dried beans and wheat is being depleted rapidly, and 10 monks are in the infirmary, "having difficulty" because they have no medication, he said.
The 116 monks, many of whom have spent their entire adult lives in the monastery, are not afraid to die and will not give in, he said. "We are obligated in the time we live to defend our rights as human beings first and then as monks."
Meanwhile, they wait "day by day" for the decision of the court and continue their daily routine of prayer, worship and tasks that makes their community go. What they can't do is welcome the hundreds of pilgrims who come to the famous monastery each year. No permits are being given for visitors to Esphigmenou.
"We just want our regular life back," the abbot said.