On December 24 of last year, it became known that the abbot of Vatopedi Monastery, Archimandrite Ephraim, was being arrested. By December 28, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia had sent a letter to the president of Greece, saying, “I do not doubt the powers of the Greek legal system, and express my hope for a fair and objective resolution in the case of the property of Vatopedi Monastery. However, I am perplexed about the imprisonment before legal case review of a monk who poses no threat to society, and who has many times expressed his readiness to cooperate with the investigation… I consider it my duty to bring our common pain to the attention of the head of the Greek government, and to ask that you release Archimandrite Ephraim, the abbot of Vatopedi Monastery on Mt. Athos.”
Also showing support for Fr. Ephraim was Patriarch-Catholicos of all Georgia Ilia II, as well as a number of hierarchs of the Greek, Cypriot, and Bulgarian Churches. During the following days, many of the Orthodox were perplexed as to why Fr. Ephraim’s governing hierarch is silent on the matter [the monasteries of Mt. Athos are under the Patriarchate of Constantinople]. If Constantinople’s response had been just as swift and principled, it would have been very difficult for the Greek authorities to ignore the unanimous position of the Orthodox world, and there is every reason to believe that Fr. Ephraim would be free right now.
On January 10, the Holy Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate, with Patriarch Bartholomew presiding, finally made a statement on this issue, but it only served to bring many of the faithful to greater perplexity and disappointment than did their former silence.
Firstly, although the Constantinople Patriarchate in its statement expressed its regrets concerning the arrest of the abbot of Vatopedi Monastery, it quite definitively made it known that it does not intend to support its aggrieved clergymen: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate has always avoided intervening with any judicial matters and investigations, due to respect of judicial independence, and will continue its policy, especially as far as this case is concerned, in which the Patriarchate does not know the content of the relevant papers in the case.”
Secondly, Constantinople gave a negative assessment of the Moscow Patriarchate’s statement in support of Fr. Ephraim, presenting it as interference in matters of Constantinople’s canonical territory: “Mount Athos lies within the jurisdiction and borders of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and though it may include Orthodox monks of different national backgrounds, its matters hold no pan-orthodox interests. Therefore, no other Autocephalous Church is allowed to interfere with the operation and issues of Mount Athos in any way.”
In reading this reproof, one might think that by writing a letter of support for the imprisoned clergyman, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia had committed something unheard of and unprecedented in the Church. Meanwhile, similar statements and requests by primates of Local Churches in support of their repressed brothers is an ordinary practice, found both in antiquity and the present time.
For example, only a few years ago, the entire Orthodox world reacted to the imprisonment of Archbishop Jovan of Ochrid in Macedonia [FYROM] after he came into canonical unity with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia also made a request to the president of Macedonia to free the archbishop, and the Serbian Church accepted this gratefully as a sign of brotherly support. Furthermore, a letter was sent to the president of Macedonia in January 2004 by Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, and by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople—apparently not at all seeing this as interference in the affairs of the Serbian Church.
Even earlier, when in 1967 the Greek Church had a confrontation with the government, after the latter had disbanded the Synod against the wishes of the Church hierarchy and forced Archbishop Chrysostomos of Athens to retire, Patriarch Alexy I (Simansky) sent a telegram on May 17, 1967 to King Constantine of Greece, in which he expressed his deep displeasure over these events taking place “in our beloved, ancient Hellenic land.”
Looking back to very ancient times, we can see, for example, how Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos of Constantinople (comm. May 16) wrote a letter in the year 917 to Caliph Al-Muktarid requesting that he cease destroying Orthodox churches in the territory of the caliphate.
In the case of Elder Ephraim, we see the current Ecumenical Patriarch showing no support for his own clergyman in trouble. The position of the Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate, which boils down to: “We are not going to help him, and we won’t let anyone else help him either,” has caused perplexity and indignation amongst many of the faithful in both Greece and Russia.
Metropolitan Amvrossios of Kalavryta and Aighialeia writes, “We are particularly shocked by the fact that the Constantinople Patriarchate has thus left poor Fr. Ephraim, their own man, to his fate, and does not allow others to sympathize with his calamity either. That is, he denies the members of the universal Orthodox community, which includes the Russians, the opportunity to apply the Gospel words… to rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep (cf. Rom. 12:15).
Looking at the text of the Synodal statement, many ask the question: How did it happen that the Constantinople Patriarch “does not know the content of the relevant papers in the case”—that is, the accusations made against one of his most distinguished clergymen, moreover the abbot of a Mt. Athos monastery—especially in a case that began three years ago? Why is it that over the seventeen days between Fr. Ephraim’s arrest and the Synodal session no one from the Patriarch’s team took any pains to acquaint himself with the case’s content and report on it to the Synod? Could it be that the events that have caused such a great stir throughout the Orthodox world seemed so trivial and commonplace to the Synod?
It is strange to see that the Constantinople Patriarchate, ordinarily so active and vocal when it comes to demanding honor and submission from others, turns out to be so quiet and restrained when it comes to helping and supporting his own archimandrite.
A question arises: Why can the Patriarch of Moscow write a letter to the president of Greece requesting Fr. Ephraim’s release, but the Patriarch of Constantinople cannot? Why can the hierarchs of the Cypriot and Greek Churches visit Fr. Ephraim in prison, but Patriarch Bartholomew, or in fact any of the hierarchs of the Constantinople Patriarchate, cannot?
The only thing the Constantinople Patriarchate was able to do was to once again remind everyone of its exclusive rights and honor, which were supposedly threatened by the Moscow Patriarch’s letter. But how could a letter requesting a change in Fr. Ephraim’s punitive status damage the canonical integrity and ecclesiastical/administrative order of the Constantinople Patriarchate? Viewing a gesture to help a specific person as an attempt to take control of the Holy Mountain makes absolutely no sense and borders on the absurd.
Especially if we take into consideration that even on January 5, that is, five days before the session of the Synod of Constantinople, an interview by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk was published in Greek, in which he emphasized that the Russian Orthodox Church does not place under any doubt Mt. Athos’s subordination to the Constantinople Patriarchate.
In the same interview, Vladyka Hilarion noted that “Our Church always expresses its concern in general for situations where Christians anywhere are subjected to repression or discrimination. I do not consider this to be interference in others’ affairs. When, for example, Coptic Christians are killed in Egypt and the members of the Holy Synod express solidarity with them—is that considered interference? No, it is a perfectly natural expression of solidarity with persecuted Christians. When a respected Mt. Athos abbot, who is known and supported by the monks of the Holy Mountain, the monks of his own monastery, the Holy Kinotita [the governing community of Mt. Athos], and who is known and loved by many people in Russia… it evokes the perplexity and indignation of very many people, who are expressing their solidarity in ways accessible to them.”
Nevertheless, the expression of solidarity was interpreted as none other than interference. Constantinople’s inappropriate reaction brings to mind the observation that a person often suspects in others the very illnesses that he himself has.
Interference in the affairs of another Local Church is, for example, the establishment of your own hierarchical structures on the canonical territory of another autocephalous Church, as happened in Estonia, or the massive reception of clergy into another Church without documents of release or any other agreement, as was done in England in the Surouzh diocese scandal. This is quite distinctly a canonical transgression, violating very specific Church canons. Strictly speaking, these cases of interference on the part of Constantinople would give the Russian Orthodox Church grounds to demand that a pan-Orthodox Council be summoned for an ecclesiastical court to try Patriarch Bartholomew, and only great condescension can explain why our Church did not take that step.
Which canons forbid the primate of one Church to intercede before a secular personage for the release of a religious leader belonging to another Church? There are no such canons nor can there be, because the canonical boundaries of autocephalous Churches apply to administrative government, but in no way do they apply to Orthodox faith and life according to that faith. There are no canonical limits to love and mercy. The obligation to fulfill Christ’s commandments is not limited to one’s “own” autocephalous Church. The holy fathers write that a Christian should help a person in trouble in any way he can even if he is of another faith. What then can be said about an Orthodox archimandrite who has been put in jail?
It is the natural urge of a pious soul to feed the hungry, receive strangers, visit the sick, and help those in prisons—for in the Lord’s words, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Mt. 25:40). It was for the sake of these words that His Holiness Patriarch Kirill wrote his letter.
It is also to fulfill the words of the Lord, give alms (Lk. 12:33), that pilgrims from both the laity and the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church regularly leave donations on the canonical territory of the Constantinople Patriarchate. This is not considered interference in its affairs, and does not at all provoke angry Synodal protests.
It also must be added that Patriarch Kirill’s letter, as it states in the text, was not only the result of his own soul’s urgings and sympathy for a suffering man, but also the fulfillment of his archpastoral duty to his own flock. Many Orthodox people in Russia, the Ukraine, Belorussia, and Moldova, including the author of these lines, were sincerely grieved by the news of Fr. Ephraim’s arrest. The proof of this is the thousands of signatures already found on a petition in support of the archimandrite. With all due tact and Christian nobility, our Patriarch decided to bring our pain to the attention of those who can decide whether or not to release Fr. Ephraim during the investigation.
In fact, if the Patriarch of Constantinople would have used Patriarch Kirill’s letter, along with the voices of support from other Local Churches, to actively defend the abbot of Vatopedi Monastery, he would have indeed strengthened his authority in the Orthodox world, and would most likely have led to Fr. Ephraim’s release. Instead, through its strange statement, the Constantinople Patriarchate has primarily given Fr. Ephraim’s opponents an excellent excuse to ignore the voices of the Orthodox world; and secondly, he has compromised himself not only before Mt. Athos and the Russian Church, but before all Orthodox Christians, including Greeks.
Yes, not everyone in the Greek world loves the Russian Orthodox Church, but even its fiercest critics, hand on heart, have to admit in this case that if they were to find themselves in Fr. Ephraim’s shoes they would much rather see Moscow’s attitude toward their misfortune than Constantinople’s.
The above-mentioned Bishop Amvrossios of the Greek Orthodox Church makes yet another point: “If the Russian Patriarch has inadvertently interfered in the affairs of another Patriarchate, why then aren’t the Churches of Greece, Cyprus, and Bulgaria also cited? Their leaders made similar statements. It would appear that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is essentially contradicting itself and is acting unilaterally.”
Truly, such selectivity in its reaction ultimately exposes the fear and preoccupation present in the Phanar. It is, alas, all so far from the Gospels and even from elementary propriety that it brings on very dismal thoughts. Could it really be that no one in the Constantinople Patriarchate understands that by their statement they are, firstly, only compromising themselves; and secondly, they still cannot prevent the Moscow Patriarchate and other Churches from expressing their opinions and concern over the events occurring in the rest of the Orthodox world, even in the canonical territory of the Constantinople Patriarchate?
In fact, the drop in Constantinople Patriarchate’s authority and the rise in neglect of its Synod’s resolution is attested to by the other autocephalous Churches’ disregard for the Synod’s call not to “interfere” in this matter. After the Constantinople Patriarchate’s session, others began writing letters analogous to Patriarch Kirill’s. The Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Chrysostom, the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro sent letters to the general prosecutor of Greece calling for a reversal of the decision to arrest Fr. Ephraim, and Bishop Pankraty of Troitsky sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Greece and a number of other upper level government officials with a similar request.
So, what did the Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate achieve? It only showed the entire Orthodox world that those who have pretenses for an exclusive place at the head of the Orthodox Church are in reality so totally out of touch with the rest of the Church that they have lost the ability to adequately evaluate their own statements and actions.
Meanwhile, Fr. Ephraim is still in prison—until the end of the investigation. The process promises to be lengthy, and so the preliminary imprisonment of the abbot of Vatopedi Monastery could stretch over years, even if he is finally found not guilty! And what if the elderly archimandrite’s fragile health does not withstand prison and he dies there? Upon whose conscience will be his death?
But even if everything ends well—they release Fr. Ephraim and then vindicate him—this unfortunately will not mean that the Constantinople Patriarchate’s problems will be over.
It is not even a matter of lost authority in the eyes of the faithful; the position taken by the members of the Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate will be very difficult to substantiate at the Last Judgment—because there is a real danger of finding themselves numbered amongst those who hear from Christ, “I was in prison, and ye visited Me not” (cf. 24:43).