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Protest For Abbot Ephraim Outside Greek Embassy, Nicosia

ephraim arrestA sombre crowd of hundreds gathered outside the Greek Embassy in Nicosia last night to hear Greek Orthodox priests chanting and praying in protest against the arrest of Church elder Abbot Ephraim in Greece.

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that the abbot's arrest was against EU human rights and that the Greek judiciary ignored his willingness to cooperate with the investigation and his ill-health.

The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches have very close ties and it is expected that there will be more reactions against Ephraim's arrest on charges of money laundering in connection with a 100 million-euro property exchange between Vatopedi Monastery and the state.

Russian Orthodox churchmen have made representations to Mount Athos and Patriarch Bartholomew saying that Ephraim's arrest is disproportionate to the charges. The monk's health is not good and the Greek government should ensure an objective, open-minded, honest and democratic process, said the Russian church in a message broadcast by many Russian media channels. After a period of being bedridden in Vatopaidi Monastery, Ephraim was taken to jail yesterday. No trial date has been set, and the abbot maintains he is innocent of all the charges.

There is speculation that there are political reasons behind Ephraim's arrest as he is considered to be Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's spiritual father and recently visited Moscow to meet with him. Russia-Greece relations are at their worst point in decades, say analysts, amid perceived insults to the Russian ambassador in Athens after former Prime Minister George Papandreou refused to meet with him, and the perception that the Greek government is overly influenced by Russia's rival for influence in the region - the US.

Russian and US oil-and-gas companies are also eyeing immense reserves of hydrocarbons around Greece and Cyprus, and there is more speculation that Ephraim - who has long held influence with Putin - has been taken out of the picture while the latest round of bidding for undersea hydrocarbon exploration gets underway.

The issue is inherently politicised as it was a key election campaign platform for PASOK, helping to bring down the Nea Democratia government under Kostas Karamanlis in 2009.

Whether Ephraim's arrest is a deliberate insult directed at Putin, a political power game, or just a case of Greece's slow justice system finally swinging into action remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, the timing of the monk's arrest just before Christmas is as provocative a move as any towards Orthodox Church believers.

In further developments, Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II said that the clergy and monks have to be very careful to stay away from business transactions, in a breathtaking example of the pot calling the kettle black. The Cyprus Orthodox Church is one of the wealthiest in the world, with interests ranging from banking, property and hotels to beer-making. The Archbishop's comments have not been popular, and there has been widespread criticism of what is perceived to be the ultimate in hypocritical positions on his part.

In comments to the media, Ephraim's brother EVROKO political party chief Nikos Koutsou said: "I would only ask the Archbishop not to speak (about my brother)."

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