Greek scandal as monastery linked to shady land deals
The all-male Greek Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos, a favourite stop for top Greek and foreign dignitaries such as Prince Charles but completely close to women, has long been a haven for those forsaking earthly pleasures to seek God.
You can imagine the shock, then, when Greeks learned that one of its main monasteries, the Vatopedi monastery dating back to the late 10th century, was conducting suspect land-swap deals with the Greek state.
According to Greek media, Vatopedi had nearly clinched a deal to exchange Vistonida Lake in northern Greece — which it claimed through 1,000-year-old documents — for prime real estate elsewhere in Greece. The deal reportedly would have meant a substantial loss to the state.
It then emerged that the wife of a conservative government minister was the notary agent in the deal. The minister resigned over this and other suspect real estate dealings and the swap was suspended pending a judicial probe.
This and other scandals, as well as unpopular new taxes, have brought the government’s popularity to a 4-year low, for the first time falling behind the Socialist opposition, and analyst say snap elections may be called as early as next year.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who swept to power in 2004 vowing to fight corruption, has seen some of his closest aides implicated in suspected wrongdoing, threatening his 152-seat majority in the 300-seat parliament.
Conservative deputies have said the swap had started before New Democracy came to power and the monastery asked for light to be shed on the case to absolve it of any wrongdoing. “We are certain in our belief that all actions of the Holy Monastery have been legal and completely transparent,” Vatopedi said in a statement.
Monks on Mount Athos have expressed shock, saying that if the allegations are true, they do not speak for all 20 monasteries or the many ascetics living in medieval isolation from the modern world.
But pictures of Vatopedi Abbot Efraim socialising with senior Greek politicians, as well as official documents pushing the property deal published in Athens dailies, clashed with the image of Athos monks living in poverty, toiling in the fields and praying.
“From a natural paradise and a way for the faithful to find Heaven, Athos has become a tax and real estate haven,” said senior Leftist Coalition party member Alekos Alavanos.
The question now is how serious a blow all this is to the government. The major liberal daily Ta Nea had this to say on its front page last week: “Karamanlis sinks in the Vatopedi swamp.”
N.B. — the above picture, from Ta Nea‘s front page last week, shows Abbott Efraim under the red-lettered headline “Revelation” (in the original Greek, apocalypse) — “Vatopedi Monastery — they gave a lake, they took building plots.”