May 20, 2010

An Open Interview With Monk Arsenios of Vatopaidi

16 May, 2010
by Sotiris Stathopoulos

Why did you make a statement to the investigating committee at this time?

In 2008, both Elder Ephraim and I, had just attended the investigative committee and handed over a memo, in which we had asked not testify as witnesses. They had then told us to wait outside. Eventually, we had left the building, under the impression that the committee had agreed to not ask us to give a statement. Two years later though, today, when so many people continue to twist the truth, we decided that it is crucial that our position which is the only truth, be heard. All this time, so many things have been said about us without our permission, and we had been witnessing an unprecedented smear campaign which defamed the image of the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi and its mission.

Many people have been wondering how it is possible for a monk, or even an Abbot, to talk with the close associate of the Prime Minister, Mr. Yiannis Angelou, meet up with ministers (even for a few occasions, as you have testified at the committee) and also be a frequent visitor of the KED [Ktimatiki Eteria Dimosiou = Landed Comany of (Greek) State]. Normal citizens with similar affairs cannot easily achieve this.

Why don't monks from other monasteries meet up with government officials? Elder Ephraim didn’t visit the late Andreas Papandreou. I didn’t think that we had been given any special treatment. On the contrary, many times I thought we were not welcome. I visited the then appropriate ministers on very few occasions and only because we had to preserve our right to have our views heard just as the views of the local authorities of Xanthi had been heard. By the way, we were not welcomed by the said local authorities. I have never talked with Mr Angelou on the phone. They even went as far as to falsely state that I had been phoning him through public offices and that I was even calling him by his first name. It suffices to say that when I had to speak with him once, because he was going to visit the Holy Mount Athos, I only spoke to his private secretary to finalize the details and not him.

Did the previous government give you facilities so that the exchanges would take place? In their statements three witnesses insisted that you had been talking to Mr. Angelou.

I must draw your attention to something which has not been noted until now, among so many other similar things. Since 1998, all governments have recognized in several official documents and decisions the property rights which Vatopaidi has on the Vistonida Lake and its surrounding,s. This was never revealed to the public. The exchanges which took place had not been our choice. They had been the initiative of the former government. That is, it was a specific political decision. We had been dragged into the exchanges, forced by the then government, which wanted to please the local authorities who wanted to throw us out of their region. The local authorities included the former undersecretary Alexander Kontos, who in his statement to the investigating committee on the 2nd December 2008, had clearly declared that the local authorities had been pressing for a solution. One day later, on the 3 December 2008, Evangelos Basiakos confirmed that Kontos brought the Metropolitan of Xanthis, Panteleimon, to his office. According to this statement, the Metropolitan, whom Basiakos described as “very tough and unrelenting”, had told him: “Find a way to make them leave. The government should find a way so that they pack up and get out of here”.

Basiakos also attested that similar pressure was brought to him by Kontos and Euripides Stylianides. Peter Doukas also testified on 3 December 2008 that the local authorities had also been exerting pressure on him. Furthermore, this political will was also proven by the relevant documents. One of them, dated 10 July 2004, shows the very own handwriting of the former Minister of Agriculture and Development, Savvas Tsipourides, in which he endorsed the quick exchange. How could then Mr. Tsipourides say that he had no knowledge of the issue? He contradicts his own statement on the 2 December 2008, which he obviously forgets today, in which he had said that the idea for the exchanges was put on the table in order to throw out the monastery and free the area from its presence. He even informed us that the local authorities have been pressing so that we leave the area. He also lied in his statement where he said that I was carrying a laptop with me, which contained various pieces of land. Who? Me? Until very recently I didn’t even know how to use a typewriter! Even today, I am completely out of tune with this kind of technology. Besides, he testified that I was going to show him our preferred pieces of land, which of course he never saw.

Please take into account that as a result of the pressure exerted on us to agree to the exchanges, we had sent a letter, dated 2nd December 2004, to the KED, and the former minister Basiakos and the former undersecretary Doukas, in which we stated that we had finally agreed to proceed with the exchanges and had been asking them to show us the pieces of land which were going to be exchanged. His whole attitude raises questions and forces us to consider how to react from now on. I honestly cannot imagine why there was so much fabrication. I suppose, he believed that we would not react, as usual. But he was wrong. Now, as far as Mr Angleou’s statement is concerned, I cannot say if he has indeed received any phone calls from anyone on the issue. However, I assure you that the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi has never made any demands on him, either oral or written. We only wanted our voice heard just as the local authorities had been heard in every governmental office, even at that of the former prime minister. As the former minister Basiakos states on 3 December 2008, the voices of the local authorities of Xanthis had been heard even at the office of the former minister Theodor Rousopoulos, because they had been pressing for our withdrawal from the area. Among them was the Metropolitan of Xanthi, Socrates Xenides, who is president of the Litigation Group of Xanthi, the undersecretary George Petaliotis and the former undersecretary Mr. Kontos. This clearly shows that all these people had bowed to the local authorities’ demand to instigate our withdrawal from the area, which eventually led to our reluctant agreement to the exchanges. Today, Mr. Xinides’ brother is the secretary general of PASOK and Mr. Petalotis has become undersecretary.

How would you appraise the fact that the public furor broke out after the exchanges took place?

In view of your duty as a journalist I must ask you to carry out a deeper investigation into the issue and take into account the recent, relevant statements by the owner of the TV station, Alpha, Demetris Kontominas, of the 1st May 2010, and that of the reporter of Alpha, George Vlachos, to the investigating committee on the 4th November 2008. They both said that their main concern was to prevent the change of use of the Olympic land, which is something which never happened. They also conceded that in fact, the sale of the Olympic land to Vatopaidi, was very beneficial to the Greek government because the land was sold at a higher price than it was actually worth!!

So, what was the monastery’s biggest mistake, then? Do you believe that the former government is justly accused all this time?

I am deeply saddened that some people have managed to smear the image of Vatopaidi and its huge mission. The long standing mission of the monastery, its huge charitable and cultural effort and its historic contribution to Orthodoxy, has been scrapped all at once. I am very disappointed because the monastery is accused of initiating exchanges of land, when in fact it was the Greek government which forced it to accept. It is accused of acts which it only did in order to protect its longstanding interests and property. It is accused of bad intentions, when it only intended to contribute to the social good by establishing benefactor bodies and offering charity to people in need. Finally, I cannot understand the former government’s diffidence and its hesitation in coming out in the open and briefing the public about the true facts. As a result, a completely legitimate exchange of land acquired the extent of “a huge scandal”.