PP RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN RUEHLZ
RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHIK #0081/01 3151237
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P R 101237Z NOV 08
FM AMCONSUL THESSALONIKI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0396
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEHIK/AMCONSUL THESSALONIKI 0438 UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 THESSALONIKI 000081
DEPT FOR EUR/SE
E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: HOLY MOUNTAIN" MONASTERY REAL ESTATE SCANDAL TARNISHES IMAGE
OF CHURCH AND STATE
REF: A. ATHENS 1476, B. ATHENS 1302. C. ATHENS 1291, D. THESSALONIKI 0080
THESSALONI 00000081 001.2 OF 002
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The scandal involving land exchanges between
Vatopedi Monastery and the Greek government (reftels) has led to
the resignation of two high-profile ministers and shaken public
confidence in the Greek Orthodox Church. The GoG and Vatopedi
have tried to limit damage by proposing measures to reverse the
transactions. On November 7, a northern Greek court invalidated
the most controversial land swap, involving Lake Vistonida in
Thrace, on the grounds that the lake and environs are protected
public property. Vatopedi claims it has Byzantine era titles
proving ownership of the lake property and is threatening to
challenge the court's decision in the European Court of Justice.
The Church has sought to portray the scandal as isolated to
Vatopedi but is concerned the fallout could affect other
monasteries and patriarchates with similar ancient land
holdings. Public criticism of the affair could claim other
political victims and is likely to drag on for the foreseeable
future. END SUMMARY.
DAMAGE CONTROL: MONASTERY, GOG TRY TO REVERSE LAND DEALS
2. (SBU) The GoG and Vatopedi Monastery of Mt. Athos are
struggling to contain a major scandal (refs A-C) involving
lucrative land exchanges that, according to some media, may have
benefited GoG officials. According to media and post's contacts
from Mt. Athos (the semi-autonomous northern Greek peninsula
administered by Orthodox monasteries, including Vatopedi), in
2005-2007 Vatopedi traded some of its Byzantine-era land
holdings for public land, mostly in northern Greece. The most
controversial property traded by Vatopedi was some 7000 acres in
the area of Lake Vistonida in Thrace. As reported in ref C,
senior Prosecutor of the Supreme Court Giorgos Sanidas contends
that in that trade, the GoG gave Vatopedi public land worth over
Euro 100 million more than the Lake Vistonida property. Media
speculate that Vatopedi planned to sell the public land and give
some of the profits to GoG officials.
3. (SBU) Under heavy criticism from local residents and the
media, Vatopedi offered on October 17 to reverse the land deal
(return GoG land or proceeds in exchange for Lake Vistonida and
other property claimed by Vatopedi). The GoG also took steps to
cancel the transaction, including by revoking all ministerial
decisions acknowledging ownership of Lake Vistonida by the
monastery. In accordance with a Supreme Court prosecutor's
September 15 order, the GoG took steps to freeze Vatopedi's land
holdings and proceeds from land sales. In addition, two
high-profile GoG ministers with alleged links to the scandal
resigned (refs A and B), and Parliament began a fact-finding
investigation into the affair on November 3.
GREEK COURT INVALIDATES DEAL, VATOPEDI MAY APPEAL TO HIGHER
4. (SBU) On November 7, a Rhodopi (northeastern Greece) first
instance court ruled that Lake Vistonida and most of the 7000
acres of surrounding land claimed by Vatopedi is
non-transferable public property (e.g. national park land).
According to the court, Vatopedi possesses rights to only 430
acres of the 7,000 it claims. The decision in effect ignores
Vatopedi's Byzantine era land titles to the lake property and
invalidates the land exchange with the GoG. The court reached
the same decision in 2003 but withheld it due to a last minute
out of court settlement between the GoG and Vatopedi. The
Supreme Court ruled on October 24 that the 2003 decision should
have been issued. Vatopedi abbot Efrem has threatened to defend
the monastery's ownership claims in the European Court of
Justice if necessary. Vatopedi bases its claims to numerous
properties in addition to Lake Vistonida on Byzantine and
Ottoman era decrees. Media and opposition politicians have
questioned the validity of these ancient documents, but the
Rhodopi court and Supreme Court have yet to comment explicitly
on the issue.
PATRIARCH: INVALIDATION OF BYZANTINE LAND TITLES WOULD BE
5. (SBU) The Greek Orthodox Church has reacted to the scandal
with a mixture of embarrassment and defensiveness. The council
of Mt. Athos monasteries (the Holy Community) issued an
announcement apologizing to the public for the affair, but
refrained from direct criticism of Vatopedi or its abbot, Efrem.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has tried to stay above
the fray, noting publicly that he is "following developments
closely." On the other hand, he has strongly defended the
validity of ancient property titles such as those held by
Vatopedi. In a November 5 speech, commenting on Byzantine and
Ottoman era land titles, the Patriarch warned that "the
slightest doubt about their validity could bring about
catastrophic consequences for the whole nation and beyond." Mt.
THESSALONI 00000081 002.2 OF 002
Athos contacts point out that Vatopedi's ancient ownership deeds
are similar to the ones held by the Patriarchate in Istanbul and
other patriarchates. Invalidation of such deeds could have a
major impact on the Church's claims in Greece and beyond.
SCANDAL REVIVES DEBATE ON SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
6. (SBU) The scandal has re-invigorated public debate about the
Orthodox Church's close relations with the Greek state, as well
as its tax exempt status and other privileges. Leftist
opposition party SYRIZA has publicly protested the Churches
extensive land holdings, including in Mt. Athos, and proposed
legislation abolishing the Church's tax exempt status.
Parliament rejected the legislation on November 5. While Church
leaders such as Thessaloniki Metropolitan Anthimos have fiercely
rejected such proposals, other Church leaders have indicated
willingness to discuss reforms in order to prevent a
re-occurrence of the Vatopedi scandal. Commenting to
journalists on the scandal, the Metropolitan of Alexandroupolis
(northeastern Greece) called for the "consideration of
separation of Church and State, if it will facilitate their
relations". The Metropolitan of Xanthi, Thrace, told post that
the interests of local residents affected by the land swaps
should take precedence over Vatopedi real estate claims. In a
November 7 interview he stated, "monasteries should not do any
kind of business, except with God."
7. (SBU) Many Greek citizens were stunned by the reports of
corruption at one of Mt. Athos's oldest and most well-respected
monasteries. Mt. Athos's monastic community has existed for
more than 1,000 years, and for many faithful the "Holy Mountain"
is the Orthodox equivalent of Mecca. Mt. Athos's twenty
monasteries house rare Byzantine treasures and attract large
numbers of Greek and foreign visitors. England's Prince Charles
is a regular visitor to Vatopedi.
8. (SBU) COMMENT: The extent of the scandal is still unknown.
It is likely to remain an embarrassment to the government for
some time and could claim more political victims as Vatopedi,
the GoG, and the courts attempt to unwind the numerous illicit
land deals and the parliamentary investigation gets underway.
The scandal has tarnished the Church's image and strengthened
the hand of those advocating greater separation of church and
state, but it is unlikely to pose a threat to the Church's solid
base of public support or its constitutionally protected
position in Greek society.
This website hosts an archive of all 251,287 US Embassy diplomatic cables that were released by WikiLeaks between November 28, 2010 and September 2, 2011.
While the cables are generally available at http://wikileaks.org/cablegate.html
, we find it hard to search or even navigate the site to read the cables.
We have made all 251,287 cables available here at Dazzlepod with the hope to make it easier for readers to browse, search, share and discuss about the released cables.
The cables are periodically selected and posted to our Twitter page
and Facebook page
for readers to review them.
For comments or questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org