News Analysis

Greece: On the precipice

The spiritual heart of Orthodoxy (Getty)

Will the monks of Mount Athos side with Moscow or Constantinople?

The rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople over Ukrainian autocephaly continues to threaten worldwide Orthodox unity. One as yet unclear potential consequence concerns the position of Mount Athos. Colonised by monks since the 9th century, the monastic enclave within Greece is often considered the spiritual heart of Orthodoxy. Explicit Athonite support would be a significant feather in the cap of either side in the conflict.

The Athos peninsula, containing about 2,000 monks in a range of large monasteries and smaller hermitages, is directly under the jurisdiction of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Despite rumours that the monasteries would take the Russian side, so far there has been no official statement from the monasteries’ governing council. This is significant: the elders have not been shy in the past about sending warning shots across the bows of Constantinople, whose involvement with ecumenism has long dismayed the arch-conservative community. Athos’s hesitation may stem from a fear of increasing internal tensions. The long stand-off surrounding the anti-ecumenical zealots of the Esphigmenou monastery, out of communion with Constantinople for decades but violently resisting attempts to evict them, highlights the potential price of division.

On the Russian side, the Moscow patriarchate has forbidden its clerics to take part in services on Athos, though it seemingly does not prevent visits by Russian pilgrims, who are an important source of income and recruits for the monasteries. Language used by Metropolitan Hilarion suggests that Moscow may be using the prospect of further restrictions to put pressure on the monks. The 70-odd Russian and Ukrainian monks of the St Panteleimon Monastery, looking culturally to Moscow but under Constantinople’s jurisdiction, are in a particularly invidious position.

Observers will be keenly watching the holy mountain for momentous shifts in allegiances. But the monks, after centuries of guarding their independence, are understandably wary of taking sides.

Fr Mark Drew