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Tuesday, June 16, 1998 Published at 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK

World: Europe

Monks see Schengen as Satan's work

The Vatopedi moastory on Mount Athos

The monks of Mount Athos, in Greece, are worried that the thousand-year-old tradition forbidding women from entering their monastic republic could be under threat.

The European Union is funding major restoration work at many of the monasteries and the monks are concerned that women's groups are trying to use the Schengen Agreement, which guarantees free access throughout Europe, to gain access to their remote monasteries.

The all-male monastic community is one of the more unlikely and vociferous opponents of the agreement - a small but angry group among the monks say that Schengen is the work of the devil and Satan's latest attempt to rule the earth.

[ image: Virgin and Child]
Virgin and Child
The Orthodox monks, who live in a semi-autonomous monastic republic on a rugged peninsula overlooking the northern Aegean, fear that Schengen's open-border arrangements could threaten a thousand-year-old decree banning women from their "Holy Mountain".

Women - and even most female domestic animals - have not been allowed on the mountain since a decree, or Avaton, banning women was issued by Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1060.

The monks call their mountain the "Garden of the Holy Virgin" after the ancient legend which tells how the Virgin Mary, blown ashore on the mountain on her way to Cyprus, was so overwhelmed by the mountain's beauty that she asked God to give it to her as a present.

Since the 10th century, the monks have lived in a self-governing community dedicating themselves to quiet contemplation of the Virgin and God, out of the sight of women.

The only way women can view the monasteries is by taking one of the boats, which sail from the "secular" parts of Athos. Even these boats cannot sail closer than 500 metres from the coast

[ image: Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon]
Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon
But the monks are worried that Schengen could change this tradition. They fear that it will be officials in Brussels or Strasbourg who will decide who can and who cannot visit Athos.

Last year the monks launched a vocal but unsuccessful campaign to try to prevent ratification of the agreement by the Greek parliament. The treaty was however, ratified in June 1997.

Kosta Karas, a writer on Orthodox affairs, says the monks' fears are unfounded, but many of them are suspicious nonetheless, especially after recent statements by some female opponents of the ban.

A number of female Finnish and Swedish Euro MPs have called for Mount Athos to be opened up to women, and a prominent Greek journalist, Fotoni Pipili, sent an open letter to parliament calling for the Avaton to be debated in parliament.

The Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers, both of them women, also recently refused to accept the special status of the mountain, arguing that the Avaton contradicted EU legislation.

Many of the more zealous monks are also angry that the Schengen database, which will be used to screen people seeking entry at member states' external borders, will brand some visitors with the mark of Satan.

One of their more arcane objections is that some of the identification numbers given to people by the database will include the combination 666 - the Mark of the Beast in the Book of Revelations. Mr Karas says this is an esoteric interpretation of Revelations.

Thousands of Orthodox zealots demonstrated against ratification last year chanting "Satan is Schengen." They say the treaty will rob people of their individuality, turning them into numbers on a computer.

[ image: Christ Pantokraton, 13th Century icon in the Sacristy of Chelandori Monastery]
Christ Pantokraton, 13th Century icon in the Sacristy of Chelandori Monastery
An announcement issued by the monastic community's supreme administrative board in February last year said ratifying the agreement would create the "danger of an institutionalised and general electronic filing (system) with all the negative consequences for the human individual's God-given freedom and his saviour through Christ."

The monks are also worried that the agreement, which would introduce stricter controls on external borders, could affect their traditional right to offer sanctuary.

Mount Athos has been a centre of Eastern Orthodoxy since AD963 and for centuries it has had Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian religious houses among its 20 self-governing monasteries. The monks are automatically entitled to Greek and European citizenship wherever they come from.

Under the centuries-old Byzantine right of sanctuary, anyone reaching the Monastery could be given sanctuary and could not be executed. The monks of Mount Athos have retained this right. Schengen, they fear, could be the beginning of the end for their centuries-old rights.

Images reproduced with kind permission of the Demokritus University of Thrace

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