Vatopedi land swap - one of several corruption scandals

Two magistrates have finished questioning more than 40 witnesses in connection with the Vatopedi land swap, one of several corruption scandals that precipitated the downfall of the previous New Democracy government, and are ready to level charges against more than 30 people including some politicians.

The investigation by magistrates Irini Kalou and Nikitas Christopoulos has reportedly produced a bulky case file that includes photographs of the title deeds of properties belonging to the Vatopedi Monastery which is alleged to have benefited in a land swap with the state that cost taxpayers around 100 million euros.

The magistrates, who in May brought charges against “all persons responsible,” are now due to start bringing these charges against specific individuals whose identities remain unclear but are believed to include certain prominent notaries.

The charges include six felonies – breach of faith to the detriment of the state, joint breach of faith to the detriment of the state, making false declarations to the detriment of the state, money laundering and instigation of these acts or direct involvement in them – and three misdemeanors, namely breach of duty, illegal transfer of property rights attaching to a monument and violation of building regulations.

According to sources, charges will also be brought against certain politicians even though their alleged misdeeds are subject to the statute of limitations. Judicial sources told that charges would be lodged against these politicians as a matter of principle “to show that they too would have faced trial if their alleged misdeeds had not been prescribed.”


Concerning the Ranks of Churches

Fr. Makarios Griniezakis

Specifically, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow had begun reevaluating the ecclesiastical rank of the Orthodox Churches. According to Archpriest Maxim Kozlof, a member of the committee entrusted with this task, the Patriarchate of Moscow is considered a Church of the pentarchy, that is, of the five Churches of ancient Christendom. In a recent interview, the Archpriest Maxim Kozlof, a member of this newly formed committee, provided the details of the committee's work. He also claims that by virtue of its magnitude, the Patriarchate of Moscow maintains such a status. He also declares that the Patriarchate of Moscow has extended its jurisdiction across numerous countries.

With regard to these comments, but also in response to various ecclesiological and theological uncertainties often put forth by Russian clergymen and theologians, permit me the following thoughts:

1. The fact that an Orthodox Patriarchate has yet to clarify in its conscience who is the First of Orthodoxy incites sadness. During their Synaxis this past October, the Primates of the Orthodox Church signed an official declaration that reemphasized who has the first place in Orthodoxy. We are troubled, however, that only a few months after this historic moment a committee is formed to reevaluate the ranking amongst Orthodox Churches. We remind the reader that the Primates, including the Patriarch of Russia, stated that they gathered "at the invitation and under the presidency of the First among us, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew." If this statement is not sufficient, then our faithful brothers in Russia should refer to the Patriarchal Tome of 1589, which granted to them the Patriarchal Status. In the pages of this document they will discover exactly who signed the Tome, and thus realize who holds the eminent position in Orthodoxy.

2. To question issues that have been settled by Ecumenical Councils and established for centuries is quite dangerous. We speak in terms of "danger" because even a cursory study of history shows us that every heresy, schism and ecclesiastical division stemmed from personal ambition and egotism, only later to be robed in the mantle of dogmatic diversity. Arius, Dioscorus, Nestorius, Apollinarius, and Marcion, were pious and religious; however, they also were men who had tremendous egos and lacked ecclesiastical ethos. If they truly believed in God, if they were obedient to their bishops, if they respected the canons of the Church, and if they recognized the authenticity of the Holy Synods, then they would not have reached the point where they created division in the unified Body of Christ. Consequently, it is not enough for us to uphold the dogma of the Fathers in isolation--even the "old-calendarists" do this. We must also maintain the ethos of the Fathers, which helps to secure the unity of the Church.

3. When we speak about ecclesiastical ethos, we certainly do not identify with the logic based on size and figures. If we did, we would give the impression that we were economists, sociologists, and politicians. In the life of the Church, and especially in our spiritual lives--which the Church of Russia has much fruit to offer--two plus two does not always equal four. When we emphasize our vastness and point to statistical demonstrations, it means that we are not shepherds, but rather operatives of power, exploiting the administrative and spiritual authority that springs forth from our position.  This is even more so the case when we put forth such efforts to earn the praise of the world and acquire the primary position in Orthodoxy. Given our current condition, those who participate in the administration of the Church must consider that their role is not to compete on stage with Stalin and Hitler. They are called to enter that sacred space where Church Fathers such as Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom live, and to be inspired by them. This is what we mean when we pronounce, "we who follow the fathers," especially since the patristic era has not ended. Every moment in time has the potential of becoming patristic if it secures and protects the Orthodox ecclesiological criteria for responding to prevalent problems and concerns. This is lost when we follow the philosophy and logic of the world, of arithmetic, of expediency, and of statistics and consequences.

4. It has been noted that, "the place of the Patriarchate of Moscow in the pentarchy of the ancient Patriarchates is very significant." It seems that some have still not realized that which is quite obvious, that is, that the Patriarchate of Moscow has never been a member of the pentarchy of the ancient Patriarchates. The pentarchy is comprised of Old Rome, New Rome (Constantinople) and the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Not only was Moscow never considered a member of the pentarchy, but also there are no ecclesiastical or canonical texts that designate Moscow as the replacement or substitute for Old Rome. This is made clear when we look at some of the central moments in church history: the schism with Old Rome occurred on 1054 during the reign of Michael Kerularios, while Russia was elevated to the status of a Patriarchate in 1589, under Patriarch Jeremiah II. If there was ever a pressing need to replace Old Rome this would have occurred immediately after the schism (1054), and not five centuries later, when Russia was elevated to a Patriarchate.

5. It is also noted "that after the fall of Rome, the Patriarchate of Moscow acquired a seat amongst the five most significant Churches, and extends its jurisdiction over a series of countries." At this point we must emphasize that the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council grants only to the Church of Constantinople the jurisdictional oversight of the "barbaric lands."

The extension of the Patriarch of Russia's jurisdiction across lands outside its ecclesiastical borders is uncanonical and a violation of Church order. This is the case when other Primates act similarly. Local Churches would have been able to extend into lands beyond their established ecclesiastical border if the canon referred to ethnicities ("barbarians") instead of geographical regions ("barabaric lands"). If this were the case we would have been able to say, for example, that the Romanian Patriarch is the spiritual leader of the Romanian people across the world, or that the Russian Patriarch is the leader of every Russian. However, the 28th Canon is unambiguous and mentions geographical jurisdictions and not ethnicities. Every Orthodox Church has a specific geographical border. Constantinople, however, maintains the license to extend throughout the Ecoumene, except, of course, into those areas under the canonical jurisdiction of other autocephalous or synodal Orthodox Churches.

The present ecclesiological circumstances are accepted through ekonomia. After all, it is not ideal to have five Archbishops of America, or to have multiple ecclesiastical jurisdictions in a single European country. We should not forget, however, that our compliance with the current state of affairs through ekonomia should not become an occasion for boastful arrogance and deviation from canonical tradition. Moreover, the uncanonical extension of a Church's jurisdiction should not be viewed as a strict execution of canon law, nor should it be perceived as an a priori right that every Primate enjoys because of their canonical jurisdiction over a specified ecclesiastical geographic region.

The thoughts that we have shared express a much deeper problem concerning what is often said about primacy in the Orthodox Church, about the idea of a "third Rome," about ecclesiastical rank, etc. These ideas would not be taken seriously had some random laymen or clergymen issued them. It is disturbing, however, when an official Church arbitrarily creates a committee (according to Fr. Maxim's comments) to evaluate matters that have already been resolved; to decide on those issues for which the Church has already decided. We would expect a Church such as Russia, which has undergone trials and tribulations, to have a completely different way of thinking. We would expect to see the Church of Russia rely more on faith than on logic, on miracles rather than facts and figures.

It is clear from the discussion that the Ecumenical Patriarchate will certainly not lose the position of primacy that it maintains; the ranking of the Orthodox Churches will not change; and the committee in question--or any other committee that is formed--will not institute rebellious changes in the Orthodox Church. We owe it to the faithful to always speak the truth so that they may hear a different perspective, and in order to avoid stirring false impressions in them. It is important not to forget that truth abides. The truth will release us from our parochial attitude and self-love; the truth will liberate us from spitefulness and our egos; the truth will allow us to move beyond feelings that instigate internal quarrels and erect narcissistic partitions. 'The truth shall set us free.' Irrespective of who we are, as members of the Church we have a constant and sacred duty to actively defend the truth.

Fr. Makarios Griniezakis is an Archimandrite of the Ecumenical Throne; he is also the official preacher of the Archdiocese of Crete, a professor of theology and ethics at the Theological Academy of Heraklion in Crete and the director of the Archdiocese's radio station.

14 ultra-Orthodox monks convicted


A misdemeanors court in Thessaloniki yesterday issued suspended jail sentences to 14 ultra-Orthodox monks who have been illegally occupying the Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos since 2002 when they fell out with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate. The monks were issued with 1-year jail sentences, suspended for three years, after being found guilty of disturbing the peace. Two police officers, charged with breach of duty after allegedly allowing a vehicle carrying provisions for the rebel monks to cross into the monastic community, were exonerated due to a lack of incriminating evidence.


"From now on, I will not tolerate"'- Archbishop said


Archbishop Ieronymos yesterday issued a strict message to priests who failed to submit reports regarding Church collections by a June deadline. According to sources, the archbishop also warned any clerics who have been accepting illicit payments that such practices would not be tolerated any longer. “All that is over. From now on, I will not tolerate any suspicion of mismanagement of funds,” Ieronymos said. According to the same sources, the archbishop sought the resignation of about 50 priests currently responsible for church collections because the churchmen in question had failed to submit their financial reports in time.


Two senior monks from the Vatopedi Monastery faced the court yesterday

Two senior monks from the Vatopedi Monastery, which is implicated in a land-swap deal with the state, yesterday faced an appeals court on charges of being moral accomplices to a breach of duty. Ephraim, the monastery’s chief monk, and Arsenios, its financial manager, have consistently denied any wrongdoing in the land-swap affair believed to have cost taxpayers some 100 million euros. Maria Psalti, the former judge of a first instance court in Rhodope, northern Greece, where tracts of land involved in the swap are located, faced the court yesterday on the same charges.


The Church of Greece’s finances today


The Church of Greece’s finances are in rude health, according to a report handed to Archbishop Ieronymos this week, which indicated that the church made more than 7 million euros profit in 2008.

According to the internal report, almost 20 million euros of revenue flowed into the church’s coffers last year, mostly from the renting out of church property. It also earned some 4.5 million euros from investments.

During 2008, the church spent almost 12.5 million euros. The biggest outlay, just over 4 million euros, was for sponsoring events. Almost 4 million was spent on salaries.

Last year, the robust state of the church’s finances also allowed it to buy 1.6 million shares in the National Bank, taking its stake in the lender up to 7.7 million shares.


An annual procession along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City

Greek Orthodox nuns hold candles as they take part in an annual procession along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City early yesterday that involves carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to another church at the foot of the Mount of Olives.


Another suspicious exchange between the Orthodox Church and the Greek state

Just a few months after news broke about the Vatopedi land-swap scandal, the Supreme Court prosecutor this weekend called for an investigation into another suspicious exchange between the Orthodox Church and the state.

Giorgos Sanidas ordered a preliminary investigation into the transfer of a prime piece of land on the Aegean island of Skyros to a Mount Athos monastery and the purchase by the Greek state, allegedly at an excessive price, of a much smaller plot belonging to the monastery.

Sanidas wants an Athens prosecutor to determine whether the monastery’s acquisition of the 3,700-hectare plot on Skyros should lead to any individuals being charged with defrauding the state. He notes that the court rulings relating to the land transfer “were the result of misleading evidence and testimonies” and therefore are “unlawful.”


Priest tricked a cancer sufferer

Thessaloniki court decided yesterday that a priest and three members of an ecclesiastical council should stand trial on charges that they tricked a cancer sufferer into making the Orthodox Church a gift of a half a million euros shortly before his death.

The court heard that in the days preceding the 82-year-old’s death, his health had deteriorated and, as a result of the heavy medication he was receiving, often did not recognize people nor was he able to speak coherently.
Nine days before he died, the man allegedly appeared at his local bank with the priest and three church officials to withdraw the money. Bank employees told the court that the 82-year-old appeared confused and had to be reminded he was withdrawing 500,000 euros, not drachmas.

The man’s widow launched the action against the four men, who, along with a fifth person, will stand trial for fraud.