The autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece has called for the release of Abbot Efraim, the head of the Vatopedi Monastery in Mount Athos, who is currently under arrest on real estate fraud charges, the church’s Holy Synod said on Thursday.
“Our church respects rulings by justice and would not like to interfere in its responsibility sphere… Nevertheless, together with many believers, the church expresses sympathy of all its members to the embattled abbot, and… hopes the possibility of his release from custody will be reconsidered,” it said.
The Cypriot-born 56-year-old Abbot Efraim is accused of involvement in a criminal scheme under which the Greek government swapped cheap farmland for costly Athens real estate in favor of the Vatopedi Monastery. He says he is not guilty.
The head of the Church of Greece, Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, plans to visit Efraim in jail.
On December 29, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, urged Greek President Karolos Papoulias to release Efraim, who was arrested on December 24.
In November, Efraim led a Vatopedi Monastery delegation that brought one of the main Christian relics, a belt of the Virgin Mary, to Russia for the first time in history.
The arrest of Efraim has sparked a diplomatic row between Moscow and Athens.
The Church of Greece is one of the fourteen autocephalous churches in the Orthodox Christian community. Mount Athos is within the jurisdiction of another autocephalous church in Greece, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate denounced the Russian Orthodox Church’s interference in the case.
A number of Greek legal experts have questioned whether the police actions on self-governed Mount Athos were legal. Athos is part of Greek territory. Its monks are Greek citizens, but a special warrant from the prosecutor’s office is required to arrest a person on Athos.