June 2, 2010

Mount Athos: International Status and Legal Framework

The Athos Monastic Community was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century and was under Turkish rule until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, at which time it was liberated by the Greek army. The following article by Prof. Patrinellis places Mount Athos in its historical and political context.

The new reality that emerged from the Balkan Wars made it necessary to redraw the political map of Macedonia. The international position of Mount Athos, however, was seen as a problem sui generis, and the territory constituted an apple of discord, particularly between Greece and Russia—which, it must be remembered, had never abandoned its aspirations to the role of protector of the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans. During the negotiations preliminary to the signing of the Treaty of London in 1913, as well as at the Ambassadors’ Conference held there that same year, Russia produced a whole string of alternate proposals for the future status of Mount Athos: internationalisation, neutrality, joint sovereignty or joint protectorate under Russia and the other Orthodox Balkan states. While the reaction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek government, which needed Russian support in other areas, was half-hearted, the Athonite Community (with the exception of the Russians) declared by official resolution that it would employ every means to resist the adulteration of the traditional autonomy of the Holy Mountain and ‘Greek sovereignty over it’. While the issue was left unresolved at that time, there was a tacit acceptance of the existing de facto Greek sovereignty over the Athonite peninsula.When the issue was raised again after the end of the First World War, conditions had become more favourable for the Greek side: on the one hand there were far fewer Russian monks on the Mountain, and on the other the new Bolshevik regime in Russia displayed little interest in the matter. With the Treaties of Neuilly (1919), Sevres (1920) and Lausanne (1923), Greek sovereignty over Mount Athos was officially recognised.

All that remained was to settle the legal dispositions of Greece’s relations with the Holy Mountain and to draw up an internal rule for the governance of the monastic community. In 1924 a five-member committee of eminent Athonites prepared a ‘Charter for the Holy Mountain of Athos’, which codified regulations and administrative dispositions stemming not only from written sources (Typika, chrysoboulla, sigillia, regulations, etc.) but also from tradition and customary usage. This Charter was approved that same year by the Athonite Assembly known as the ‘double Synaxis’. On the basis of this official text the Greek state drafted a Legislative Decree, which the Greek Parliament passed into law in 1926. At the same time, the 1927 Greek Constitution contained special articles (included in each subsequent constitution) on the general principles governing the status of Mount Athos.

These were the official documents defining the Athonite Peninsula’s relations with Greece and with the Church, as well as the competence of its administrative institutions, the Holy Synaxis and the Holy Epistasia. They also regulated relations between monks, between monk and monastery, between monastery and dependency, etc., in order to prevent friction and disputes.

The Greek State is represented by the Governor of Mount Athos, who answers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and who, together with the deputy governor, resides in Karyes. He ensures that the Charter is respected, attends the sessions of the Holy Community in an advisory capacity, and presides over local public services (police, customs, etc.).

Finally, with regard to the administration of justice, it should be noted that disciplinary matters and minor disputes between monks or monasteries are adjudicated initially by the individual monastic authorities, in the second instance by the Holy Community and in the third by the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Misdemeanours and minor infractions are settled by the local police authorities, while criminal offences and land disputes between monasteries are in the jurisdiction of the competent courts in Thessaloniki.

Ch. G. Patrinellis
Professor of Modern History
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki