The issue of esphigmenou
Avaton (no-pass) for Athos orthodox monks.
The entire monastic community of Esphigmenou monastery has been living under a peculiar status of avaton for decades. They have been walled off (figuratively) the rest of the Athos peninsula. At the very bottom of this complex issue lies the refusal of the monks to violate the church cannon regarding schismatics.
See also: Greek Old Calendarists
Esphigmenou along with other Mt. Athos monasteries, sketes and monks,[which?] had been involved in a long dispute with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The dispute continues since a new "Esphigmenou brotherhood", was established.
The monastic community of Mount Athos is under the direct spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch and all Athonite monks are canonically required to commemorate (Greek: να μνημονεύουν) the Patriarch. However, since the 1970s, Esphigmenou, along with other Mt. Athos monasteries, had accused the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of being ecumenist and had refused to commemorate him. These complaints mainly consist of canon law prohibiting Orthodox from praying with heretics.
The relationship between the current occupant monks of Esphigmenou monastery and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has greatly deteriorated since 2002, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople declared them as being in schism from the Orthodox Church (using a rule that many believe was created to keep Roman Catholics out of the Holy Mountain). Since the Constitution of Greece prohibits schismatics (or Roman Catholics) from dwelling in Athos, the occupants of Esphigmenou were ordered by a Thessaloniki court to leave the monastery, however they refused to comply. The case was taken to the Greek Supreme Court.
The Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate reacted by declaring the schismatic monks inside Esphigmenou illegal, and on 3 October 2005 sanctioned the formation of a new Esphigmenou brotherhood, under the spiritual guidance of Archimandrite Chrysostomos Katsoulieris. In November 2005 Katsoulieris and his monks tried to take over the ‘old’ Esphigmenou konaki in Karyes (building 23), but failed and the police had to be invoked to separate the parties. On Sunday, October 22, 2006, Patriarch Bartholomew himself placed the “foundation stone” of the new and official konaki of Esphigmenou. This is a new building near the old konaki (nr 23A). Temporary, until the dispute is resolved, this konaki will be the (official) monastery itself. For this event a heavy police force was mobilized but the ceremony was completed calmly and peacefully. Esphigmenou again gained global attention in December 2006 when members of the new brotherhood tried to force their way into the monastery's offices in Karyes (in the "old" konaki at nr 23). In the ensuing clashes seven monks were severely injured: four of the ‘official’ monks and three of the schismatic monks. All were brought to hospital by the police outside Athos. The last three were not allowed to return to the Holy Mountain.
In January 2007, the district attorney of Thessaloniki pressed charges against the monks of Esphigmenou ("σχισματικοί ρασοφόροι") for "embezzlement" of over 150,000 euros and the estate rightfully belonging to the monastery.
In 2014, Greek police took part in an operation to clear an apartment in Thessaloniki used as a hostel by the 'old' Esphigmenou monks. Police said one monk and five supporters were in the apartment in central Thessaloniki during the raid, which followed a court ruling for the eviction. Riot police cordoned off surrounding blocks to prevent other supporters from hindering the operation.
The monks continued to remain inside the premises of Esphigmenou Monastery, under blockade, as shown in a 2016 travel documentary by British presenter Simon Reeve. The supply ship that supports Mt. Athos no longer stops at Esphigmenou, their bank accounts have been seized and nearly all of their property outside Mt. Athos has been taken over by the 'new' monastic community.
In January 2017 eight monks of 'old' Esphigmenou monastic community, including abbot Methodios (Papalamprakopoulos), received jail sentences in-absentia from Thessaloniki Mixed Jury Criminal Court. The monks were charged with instigating violence and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers following an incident in July 2013 in the Athonite capital of Karyes (relating to the occupation of the 'old' konaki building). The incident in question occurred when court bailiffs arrived to the Esphigmenou administrative offices in Karyes on July 29, 2013, to evict the schismatic monks, who responded by throwing three Molotov cocktails and an explosive device. Abbot Methodios and monk Antypas, the main aggressor, both received twenty-year sentences, effective immediately. The other six monks were charged as accomplices, receiving sentences of ten years and four months. The sentence was appealed by the defendants.
In April 2019 the monks inhabiting the buildings of Esphigmenou Monastery, considered squatters by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Sacred Community of Mt. Athos, were sentenced to 6-months imprisonment with a 3-year suspension for fraud against the Greek state. The schismatic monks were illegally exempted from the value-added tax and pretending to be the regular administration of the monastery by using the name and seal of the Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou. Thus, they were illegally receiving economic benefits, not paying the taxes due. Monks of the Holy Mountain are exempt from the tax, but the squatter monks are not officially considered Athonites. A few days later, a Thessaloniki appeals court handed down a sentence of 17-years’ imprisonment and a fine of 600 euros for the abbot Methodios and the monk Antypas for the 2013 attacks. The other six monks were sentenced to 9 years and 5 months (all prison sentences were slightly reduced from the 2017 ruling).
On 8 July 2020 the Greek Supreme Court rejected the appeal filed by the 'old' Esphigmenou community against the decision of the Court of Appeals of Thessaloniki from June 17, that obliged them to hand over all the occupied territories both on and outside of Mt. Athos to the new Esphigmenou brotherhood, currently based in the Athonite capital of Karyes. On July 23 police officers arrived at the monastery's dependencies in Ierissos and in Nea Roda and forced the monks to leave.
As of 2022 the conflict is ongoing, with the 'old' Esphigmenou monks still occupying the monastery buildings and the administration building in Karyes. "
With the understanding that legal settlements may not always be ethical, I have opened this discussion, More importantly, given that official decisions may have been tainted by political, domestic and international, I propose that we examine the impact the current decisions may have on the survival of Athonite monasticism. I call upon the scholarly community to look into this matter,
These concerns of mine are amplified considering the cataclysmic events that we live.