Russian church enlists Arafat's help to regain Hebron monastery
By Andrei Zolotov
Moscow, 11th July (ENI)--The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has recruited the support of the Palestinian Authority to regain control of a Russian monastery in the West Bank city of Hebron, which had been held by a rival Russian church in exile since the 1920s.
According to international news agencies, Palestinian police, allegedly acting on the orders of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, entered the monastery on 5 July and used force to evict several monks and nuns belonging to the rival church.
The Moscow Patriarchate issued a statement issued today (11 July) stating that it had regained control of the monastery and that it was the "lawful owner" of the property. Observers have described the action of the Palestinian authorities as a victory for the Moscow leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, who is tying to recover church properties outside Russia lost to churches-in-exile during the communist era.
The rival church -- the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad -- whose headquarters are in the United States was set up in the 1920s by emigre Russian bishops who left Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has been a bitter opponent of the Moscow Patriarchate, which it has accused of selling out to communism.
Last month Patriarch Alexei made an official visit to the region during which he requested Arafat to recognise Moscow's claim to Russian church properties on the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
Patriarch Alexei's visit was to mark the 150th anniversary of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, which was set up in 1847 to serve Russian pilgrims, and which owned a number of church properties throughout the Holy Land including the Hebron Monastery. These properties came under the control of the exile church in the 1920s. (Subsequently, the properties which were on the territory of Israel in 1948 were returned to the Moscow Patriarchate after the Soviet Union became the first foreign government to recognise the State of Israel.)
According to news agency reports, two nuns were injured during the eviction on 5 July and had to receive hospital treatment. The Associated Press reported that one of the nuns, Sister Natalya, said she was grabbed by five police officers who pushed her against a wall and hit her in the stomach.
Hieromonk Mark Golovkov, a priest with the Moscow Patriarchate's Mission in Jerusalem told ENI in a telephone interview today that he could not confirm or deny allegations of violence. Moscow Patriarchate officials were not present during the incident, he said.Today's statement >from the Moscow Patriarchate reported only that "the head of the Mission Abroad [of the rival church] and his assistants left the monastery [on 5 July] being accompanied by the security men who behaved with correctness". The statement also said that on 5 July "all keys of the premises were voluntarily given to the authorities".
According to Golovkov, Palestinian authorities had informed the exile church officials in Hebron in advance of its action that it recognised the Moscow Patriarchate as the legal owner of the property. Golovkov also said that two monks permanently residing in the monastery had formally applied to join the Moscow Patriarchate.
The Hebron monastery was the scene of a major embarrassment during Patriarch Alexei's visit to the Holy Land. Accompanied by Yasser Arafat, and Russian, Palestinian and Greek Orthodox dignitaries, Patriarch Alexei attempted to visit the monastery. But monks belonging to the exile church hid the keys to prevent Alexei from entering the church. Embarrassed Palestinian hosts prised the door open. Both Arafat and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodorus of Jerusalem were reported to be furious about the incident.
Golovkov told ENI that the exile church controlled another Russian monastery on Palestinian territory -- in Jericho -- which is inhabited by just one monk. He was not able to say whether it would also soon be regained by the Moscow Patriarchate.
"That is a delicate issue," he said.
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(c) Ecumenical News International