Greek Church crisis deepens
The church was spinning in a whirlwind of scandalous allegations made by clerics and a drug dealer last week. So damning are the mounting charges against high church officials, all the way up to the Archbishop of Athens, that the Holy Synod, the church's governing body, has banned priests from speaking publicly to the media...
THE ORTHODOX Church of Greece placed a gag order on all clergy, just two days after press revelations linking Archbishop Christodoulos to a man arrested for heroin dealing one year later. The mounting church crisis, with daily revelations of bishops' scandals, is widely considered Christodoulos' greatest challenge in his seven-year ministry, and some believe it could even jeopardise his position at the church's helm.
The man - who is named Apostolos Vavylis and used the alias Apostolos Fokas - in a sworn affidavit submitted to Israeli authorities said that Christodoulos sent him as an envoy to help secure the election of Patriarch Eirinaios of Jerusalem in 2001.
Vavylis had been placed on an Interpol wanted list by Italian authorities in 1994 for drug trafficking. He was convicted in Larissa in 1991 for transporting over one kilo of heroin, for which he received a 13-year sentence. Two years later, the sentence was suspended for 15 years, reportedly after he offered information leading to the arrest of other dealers.
In Jerusalem, Vavylis said he was accompanied by retired Greek policeman Yannis Triantafyllakis and priest Nikodimos from the Chrysopigi monastic brotherhood of which Christodoulos was a member.
The Athens lower court prosecutor's office ordered an emergency investigation on February 10 to probe how Vavylis was able to cross borders and sell armoured cars and bullet-proof vests in 1996 to the public order ministry and the state Postal Savings Bank while he was on the Interpol list.
Christodoulos' 'spiritual child'
In a statement issued on February 8, the archdiocese categorically denied that Christodoulos had sent anyone to help elect Eirinaios. Spokesmen for the archbishop defended his recommendation for Vavylis, in which Christodoulos praised his "Christian ethos" and "Greekness", indicating that it was written in 1987, one year before the trial and conviction and suggesting that Christodoulos had broken ties with Vavylis.
But Abbott George Kapsanis of Mount Athos' Grigoriou Monastery told ERA state radio on February 10 that Christodoulos personally called him to receive Vavylis for confession and spiritual guidance in 1998, when he was already a wanted man. The abbott proceeded to give Vavylis another letter of recommendation.
The Jerusalem Patriarchate's Archbishop Alexios of Gaza told state TV that Christodoulos met with Eirinaios and Vavylis at an Athens hotel in 2001 and instructed Vavylis to go to Jerusalem to help elect Eirinaios, describing the mission as one to promote "national interests".
Christodoulos' spokesman, Father Epiphanios Economou, told the Athens News that the archbishop has not seen Vavylis since 1987 and that the recommendation was made at the request of his parents - "respectable citizens of Volos" - as part of Christodoulos' pastoral duties.
A VPRC poll showed that Christodoulos' negative ratings were 47 percent, versus 43 percent positive, a nose-dive since May 2004, when his positive ratings were at 68 percent.
Eirinaios, whom Vavylis accuses of having formed a "criminal group" to defame his rivals for the patriarchal throne through illegal means, denies that Vavylis ever worked for him and attributed the allegations to a plot to harm the patriarchate. But evidence has emerged that in 2002 Vavylis was part of a Jerusalem Patriarchate mission to the Vatican, where he went as "Rev Fr Rafaele Apostolos Anagnostakis".
But Greece's consul-general in Jerusalem at the time, Petros Panagiotopoulos, told state TV that Vavylis was so close an aide to the patriarch that one had to go through him to speak with Eirinaios. Panagiotopoulos said he expressed reservations about Vavylis to Eirinaios, who said he could do nothing because Vavylis was Christodoulos' "spiritual child".
There has been speculation in the Greek press that Vavylis was a secret service agent of Greece, Israel, or both.
Gag the clergy
The public uproar has led to mounting calls for the separation of church and state, from politicians ranging from Pasok leader George Papandreou and Left Coalition leader Alekos Alavanos to prominent conservative politicians like Ioannis Varvitsiotis. But the government so far categorically rejects such a prospect.
But the crisis has also led the church to hunker down and prohibit clergy from speaking publicly about church scandals.
"The Holy Synod decided that after the creation of a three-bishop investigative committee, to which anyone possessing legal evidence against clergy can submit it for review, it is no longer useful for clergy to participate in public discussions on church improprieties on television, radio or other mass media, except with the special order of the Holy Synod," read the synod's official communique on February 8.
The move raised questions about the church's determination to achieve transparency amidst an avalanche of accusation of judicial and sexual improprieties committed by priests and bishops.
Allegations run rampant
On the same day, the 12-member synod, chaired and controlled by Christodoulos, also cleared the archbishop's close associate, Metropolitan Theoklitos of Thessaliotis, of charges that he had been arrested by police at Trikala bar on suspicion of drug dealing, along with a priest, Seraphim Koulousousas, who resigned recently as director of Christodoulos' office.
Nonetheless, the synod, after it had dismissed all charges, complied with Theoklitos' request to appoint a bishop to investigate the case. The synod ignored the fact that Theoklitos had used a false Piraeus address to try a slander suit there, where the case was heard by a judge implicated in the ongoing judicial scandal.
Theoklitos' lawyer, Alexis Kouyias, told the Athens News that the bishop simply followed the advice of his previous counsel, who was also Christodoulos' lawyer. Kouyias said that the address was chosen because it was the residence of the court secretary, even though the bishop did not know her.
In an effort to bolster his position and build alliances, Christodoulos met with key members of the church hierarchy on February 9 to seek ways to surpass the crisis. The meeting was attended by Christodoulos main rival for the archbishop's throne in 1998, Ieronymos of Thebes.
Ieronymos reportedly pledged support on the condition that Christodoulos would clear his name of charges of financial malfeasance that were raised before the archbishop's election, and of which he was cleared by a Greek court. Christodoulos is expected to call a meeting of all Greece's bishops by month's end.
Meanwhile, the Greek Supreme Court proceeded with further prosecutions against judges, filing charges against lower court president Evangelos Kalousis, who is accused of exploiting foreign women as prostitutes. He allegedly lured the women through newspaper ads and kept only those over 1.80m tall.
The seventh Greek judge facing expulsion, Kalousis was arrested on February 10 after allegedly trying to cash a bad check in a bank. Kalousis claimed he had found the check on the street and was merely trying to ascertain if it was authentic.
A deputy appellate court prosecutor, Nikos Athanasopoulos, who is accused of having participated with priest Iakovos Giosakis in a judicial ring rigging cases, claimed that he was drawn in and deceived by the priest.
ATHENS NEWS , 11/02/2005, page: A05
Article code: C13117A051