The abbot of the prestigious Vatopedi monastery in Mount Athos, Greece has been imprisoned pending trial for alleged fraud and embezzlement.
Archimandrite Ephraim, 56, is accused of arranging land swaps between Vatopedi and the state which are thought to have cost the government millions of euros.
The abbot, now being held in Korydallos prison in Athens, denies wrongdoing. His arrest has triggered protests in Greece, Cyprus, Russia and other christian orthodox countries.
What is Archimandrite Ephraim accused of?
Vatopedi is part of the ancient Mount Athos monastic community that has been visited by Britain’s Prince Charles and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The controversial deal saw valuable state land traded for less valuable land held by Vatopedi. It is said to have cost the state some EURO 100 million ($129.42m). None of the involved state officials have been accused, prosecuted or detained, some have even been promoted.
“They rushed Efraim to jail … while others who have embezzled Greek people’s money remain at large,” said George Karatzaferis, leader of the far-right LAOS party which is part of Greece’s coalition government.
Despite parliamentary investigations into several public officials, no senior politician has so far been charged.
“Undoubtedly the pre-trial jailing could create the impression, in one part of Greek society, that finally someone is paying for a such a big scandal,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters.
“But it also reminds everyone that all politicians involved in this case are left unpunished,” he said.
The government’s anti-corruption crackdown hit another snag on Wednesday when two newly-appointed special prosecutors targeting economic crime resigned, complaining of political meddling. They did not give details.
Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou replied accusing the critics of “interfering in the work of the justice system”.
Speaking to Skai TV, Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki wondered why Ephraim was the only person among the 32 involved in the Vatopedi land swap to be remanded in custody.
“People are wondering whether Ephraim is being made a scapegoat,” said the bishop, who insisted that the Church of Greece’s Holy Synod would not take a position on the matter.
“There is the problem of meddling in judicial matters,” he said. “The church is totally separate from the state.”
According to Stavros Tsakyrakis, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Athens University the imprisonment of Abbot Ephraim has no basis in law
“The detention of Mr. Ephraim is another impropriety of Greek justice. It violates the fundamental principle of rule of law dictates that no one is deprived of liberty only after a decision legally consisting court. Temporary custody is a derogation from this principle because it is ordered without a court has ruled on the guilt of a person and therefore justified only in extreme cases when the accused is suspected of absconding or is likely to commit new offenses.
The law governing the detention (Article 282 CCP) is detailed and fully consistent with the exceptional nature of the measure. It requires not only the accused is suspected escape, but have gone in flight preparations. Not only is likely to commit new offenses, but very likely that they will commit. […] With these data, the pre-trial detention is completely arbitrary and has no basis in law.”
Prof. Tsakyrakis added:
It is Mr. Ephraim the only victim of judicial arbitrariness that sends people to prison without a court to rule on guilt, only because the investigating judge and the prosecutor consider them guilty. Two of them, for Mr. A. Sotiropoulou and daughter accused of scandal Zimens I publicly complained in the past. Our judges, however, do not seem to pay attention. They still consider custody as a means of power that allows them to imprison someone accused by themselves and not according to the law. The anxiety of most defendants in Greece is not the trial (which nobody knows when it will take place) but to avoid detention. […]
Russia supports the release of Archimandrite Ephraim
The Russian Orthodox Church’s head of foreign relations, Metropolitan Ilarion, called the abbot’s detention “an extraordinary event, arousing profound bewilderment”
“We are deeply concerned by the ruling of the Greek judiciary to put him under pre-trial detention, despite the recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights” the Russian foreign ministry said.
Patriarch Kirill asks Greek president to release Abbot Ephraim
Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill has sent a message to Greek President Karolos Papoulias to express his concern regarding the custody of Archimandrite Ephraim, Abbot of the Mount Athos Vatopedi Monastery.
“It is my duty to convey our common concern to the chief of the Greek state and to request the release from custody of Archimandrite Ephraim, superior of the Mount Athos Vatopedi Monastery,” says the message posted on the Russian Orthodox Church website.
“I do not question the powers of the Greek law enforcement officials and express hope for a fair and impartial decision regarding the property of the Vatopedi Monastery. However, I am perplexed by the custody of the monk, who is not a danger to society and has repeatedly expressed readiness to cooperate with detectives, prior to the court hearing of the case merits,” he said.
Patriarch Kirill said he was particularly concerned about Archimandrite Ephraim’s ill health, which was ignored in taking him into custody.
“In Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and other countries, whose peoples are the traditional flock of the Russian Orthodox Church, millions of believers are alarmed by the police measures taken as regards the hegemon of the famous Athos monastery well-known to the entire Orthodox world on the days Orthodox Greece celebrates Christmas,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern about the custody of Archimandrite Ephraim on Wednesday.
There was no intention to flee the country to escape a trial, Abbot Ephraim was in Russia accompanying the Belt of the Most Holy Mother of God for more than one month in fall. Approximately three million believers worshiped the holy object from Athos in that period.
Protests in Russia for freeing Archimandrite Ephraim
Russia’s Orthodox St.Andrew Foundation has held a protest campaign in the vicinity of EU Moscow office to support Archimandrite Ephraim, superior of the Vatopedi Monastery in Athos who had been arrested earlier. The Fund arranged the delivery of the Most Holy Mother of God Belt from Athos earlier this autumn.
The protesters believe it is cruel and inhumane to keep Father Ephraim under arrest given the state of his health and age. A similar rally was organized near the Greek Embassy in Moscow.
The President of the Hellenic Republic,
The Prime Minister,
The Attorney General
24 December 2011
We hereby condemn with abhorrence the judicial ‘’crime’ committed in Athens on the 23rd December 2011, against the Church in the face of Elder Efrem, Abbot of the Great, Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi in the Holy Mountain.
The decision to take Elder Efrem into custody was based on hatred and prejudice. This is manifested in the following:
- The timing of the decision: Christmas Eve
- The surrounding of the Holy Mountain by armed police forces despite the declaration by the attorney representing the Elder that the latter intended to present himself to the police willingly.
- The sentence passed is normally given to people who have the intention to repeat the offences accused of.
- During the preliminary hearing the reason given for the sentence was the Elder’s recent trip to Russia, when he accompanied the Holy Belt of the Most Holy Mother of God. During this visit millions of people, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General of the Russian Republic came out to greet them.
- The investigation lasted more than three years and no incriminating evidence has been found.
- The offense which the Elder is accused of is ‘instigation’ even though the suspects of this offence have been acquitted.
- During the last three years of the investigation, the Elder has taken numerous trips abroad and if he had intended to leave the country he had plenty of opportunity to do so.
- The Elder, as a spiritual figure, is honored and praised worldwide and constitutes an excellent envoy for Greece.
- The people who have been revealed as the masterminds of the conspiracy against him have been honored with ministerial posts and are attempting to cover up their deception at all costs.
- In Greece, enormous scandals have been uncovered and established while those responsible are not only walking free but are also given political posts.
We are convinced that the decision is a deliberate political act intending to defame the Holy Mountain and the Church.
We call upon you to do the utmost to reverse it.
You can send it via:
- FAX, at (+30) 211 800 1332
- Email, at firstname.lastname@example.org
The letter is also available in romanian