July 29, 2013

Athos and Women: Different Opinions

By Sergey Stepanov

The Greek public community is indignant at the decision recently taken by the Dutch court and at the resolution of the European Parliament in January, when a Greek law that allows monks from Mount Athos not to let women on the Holy Mountan was officially declared in court as ‘contradicting human rights.’ An official response to the declaration was immediate: governmental spokesman Christos Protopapas told European human rights activists that the right of the Athos monastic republic not to let women on the Holy Mountain was confirmed in the treaty of Greece’s incorporation into the European Union. Which, as he said, ruled any further discussions out.

Currently rights of women are discussed in many EU organizations; in accordance with the juridical procedure adopted by the European Union, a case considered by the Dutch court can be further considered by the European court in Strasbourg.

Meanwhile, there are different opinions on the problem even in Greece. There are some active supporters of revocation of the above mentioned prohibition. For instance, European Parliament member Anna Karamanou is convinced that ‘the prohibition was adopted a thousand years ago, in the epoch of the Dark Middle Ages in Europe’, that is why ‘it represents social realities of that period’; Anna Karamanou says that ‘nowadays when equal rights for men and women are officially recognized, this prohibition cannot be valid any longer.’

The first Greek journalist who studied the problem of the prohibition for women to access Athos, Fotini Pipili, sticks to a particular opinion: ‘I think that the present-day situation is caused by the policy of the monastery republic itself: Athos monasteries opened their doors to different famous princes, kings, actors, fashion designers, hairdressers and tourists from all over the world. As far as I know, the mysticism of the Holy Mountain vanished right at the period when monks began driving jeeps and started using modern services and technologies. The cosmopolitan policy of monks that they carried out within several past decades, has paved the road to the Holy Mountain. That is why I think this discrimination between men and women concerning access to Athos cannot exist any longer, as monasteries are mostly financed from European sources, men and women. I cannot reconcile myself with the fact that I am not allowed to the riches of Orthodoxy, of which I myself am a small part.’

However, popular singer Sofia Vossou says that traditions must be preserved: ‘Although I am eager to pilgrimage to Athos, I think that the things must remain as they have been defined by our traditions. It is not bad at all to have some tradition. To my mind, the ideas of society suggested by modernists are devoid of respect and of our own ego. If finally the prohibition for women to visit Athos is lifted, it will be like the abolishment of the Christmas tree or Christmas itself. If my Church allows, I would be the first to visit Athos. But for the time being, I keep up the traditions of my Church as I am an Orthodox Christian. I respect the Church and its regulations.’

However, there are even harsher opinions. For instance, Liana Kanelli, famous journalist and TV host, supports the prohibition for women to visit Athos. She says: ‘Now urbanization and modernism bring destruction through entertainment. Part of the Auschwitz concentration camp was turned into a dance club, thus the place of the greatest tragedy became a place for entertainment. There are companies that make money on underwater tours to the places where atomic underwater tests were held. Do you think that in this world abolishment of the prohibition for women to visit Athos will be a progress? And this is at the time when women are still prohibited to visit the Athenian Club! In 1821, the Holy Mountain received women and children in order to save their lives. On the whole, I am not so much interested whether I have any right to drink coffee with cardinals in the Vatican, or if it makes sense to set up mixed monasteries. Belief is the thing where everyone decides for himself. But if someone decides to break the sanctity of the Holy Mountain, I will take all possible efforts or organize a blockade to prevent such actions.’

Greece Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, said the other day that the Greek government would not fulfill the resolution of the European Parliament concerning the prohibition (the resolution is not obligatory). The minister emphasizes that Athos is a unique monastic republic in northern Greece which enjoys a particular legal status. The ancient tradition in accordance with which women are not allowed to the peninsula is confirmed by constitutional acts of the European Union and by the Greek Constitution.

Besides, Evangelos Venizelos says that Athos is not the only place in Europe where women are not allowed for religious reasons. The minister hinted that the European Parliament followed double standards; it is strange that the Parliament considers the prohibition for women to visit Athos, but it ignores the fact that governmental authorities of the Vatican consist of men only and the head of the government is elected by the authority consisting of men only.

We would like to mention that the prohibition for women to visit Athos was introduced over one thousand years ago, in the 9th century, when Byzantine emperors decided that the peninsula must be an abode of monks only.