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Sunday, October 26, 1997 Published at 12:18 GMT

World: Europe

Monks see Schengen as Devil's work
image: [ Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos ]
Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos

The all-male monastic community of Mount Athos, in a northeastern corner of Greece, is one of the more unlikely and vociferous opponents of the Schengen 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.

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 'Holy Mountain' since a decree, or Avaton, banning women was issued by Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1060.

[ image: View of Vatopedi]
View of Vatopedi
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: Dionysiou Monsatery]
Dionysiou Monsatery
But the monks are worried that Schengen could change this unbroken tradition. Viron Karidis, of the BBC's Greek Service, says the monks fear that when the agreement comes into effect, it could allow women onto the mountain. They fear that it will be officials in Brussels or Strasbourg who will decide who can and who cannot visit Athos.

Earlier this 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.

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.

[ image: monks at Vatapedi]
monks at Vatapedi
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 inevitably 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 earlier this year chanting "Satan is Schengen." They say the treaty will rob people of their individuality, turning them into numbers on a computer.

An announcement issued by the monastic community's supreme administrative board in February said ratifying the Agreement would create the "danger of an institutionalized and general electronic filing (system) with all the negative consequences for the human individual's God-given freedom and his saviour through Christ."

[ image: Christ Pantokraton, 13th Century icon in the Sacristy of Chelandori Monastery]
Christ Pantokraton, 13th Century icon in the Sacristy of Chelandori Monastery
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 AD 963 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.

[ image: Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon]
Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon
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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