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Tuesday, 14 November, 2000, 12:51 GMT
Sex scandal divides Cyprus Church
Greek Cypriot churchgoers have been appalled by row
Greek Orthodox clergy are meeting in Cyprus to discuss allegations of homosexuality that have divided the island's church.

Accusations that the charismatic Bishop of Limassol, Athanasios, had an affair with a fellow monk in his youth have prompted counter-charges of sexual misconduct and bribery.

If the allegations are proved true, the bishop would have to stand down from office.

This pits the old guard of bishops ... against bishops like Athanasios

Lawyer Christos Clerides
The Archbishop of Cyprus called the Major Holy Synod - only the third such meeting to be held in the past 100 years - to investigate the claims.

The bishop's backers say the accusations are part of an elaborate attempt by some clerics to quash his chances of being named as the successor to the current, but old and frail, Archbishop of Cyprus.

And they have responded with allegations of bribery and the discovery of illegitimate children said to have been fathered by senior church figures from the opposing side.

A former monk of the all-male commune of Mount Athos in Greece, Bishop Athanasios has strongly denied the allegations against him and insists he is not gay.

Supporters say the bishop, who has a large following among young people, is viewed as a threat by the more established and worldly bishops Cyprus is accustomed to.

Cypriots shocked

The bishop's lawyer, Christos Clerides, said: "This pits the old guard of bishops associated more with business against bishops like Athanassios, who is bringing the church closer to the people."

The archbishop's decision to hold a synod reflects the seriousness of the situation.

The church's constitution demands that 13 bishops need to be present before a fellow bishop can be defrocked.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople questioned meeting
Cyprus only has nine bishops of its own, but so determined is the archbishop to get to the bottom of it, he has insisted that the synod should go ahead, summoning clergy from around the eastern Mediterranean to take part.

The story has dominated the Cyprus media for months, with allegations and counter-allegations repeated in graphic detail on prime time TV.

The church plays a central role in the lives of most Cypriots and churchgoers have been shocked and appalled by the public row.

Cyprus legalised homosexuality three years ago.

But the move was strongly condemned by the church and the island remains deeply conservative, with gays still firmly in the closet.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, has openly questioned the archbishop's right to call the meeting.

But the move was widely seen on the island as a challenge to its church's independence.

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