“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
(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.
(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 AUTHORITY
(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
The Vatopedi monastery was implicated in a real estate scandal by PASOK in 2008 in the framework of what we later learned was to defame and tarnish the image of the former conservative government of Costas Karamanlis. Summarizing the evidence submitted, it is obvious that the issue was completely absurd and ridiculous and till this day is STILL considered a scandal by many. The third episode of this series which is broadcasted on SKAI channel examines the issue of the ownership of Lake Vistonida. The ownership as you will see in the video with the correct documentation was and once again is undisputed. On September 7, 2011 a Wikileaks cable was released which confirms all this information and proved without a doubt that the issue of Vatopedi was used as a “tool” to kill the popularity of the conservative government of Karamanlis and shake the confidence that Greeks had in the Greek Orthodox Church. Remember what Kissinger said about hitting our religion, our culture, etc? Here is a small sample of what that particular cable said:
Video Source SKAI – Click here if you have trouble viewing video. If you have not viewed part one then click here. For part two click here.