Mon, Jul 28, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Mount Athos fights against the fairer sex

A 1,000-year-old ban has come under attack as the monastic community of Mount Athos stubbornlyinsists that females be kept away


The sun touched the horizon as the ferry Saint Anne left the port of Ouranoupolis. On deck, a group of black-robed monks shifted crates of vegetables and a pair of unshaven backpackers sipped coffee and waved goodbye to me.

They were going to a place frozen in time and history: Mount Athos, also known as Aghion Oros, or holy mountain.

I was left behind. As a woman, I am forbidden from setting foot there.

For more than 1,000 years, Mount Athos has been the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church and the exclusive domain of monks and other holy men.

Set on the easternmost Chalkidiki peninsula in northern Greece, Mount Athos is a rugged outcropping of sheer cliffs and massive pine forests dominated by a craggy peak rising 2,033m from the sea.

Twenty large monasteries form the autonomous state of Aghion Oros which is home to nearly 2,000 monks of all ages and walks of life.

The monks live much as they have since the first solitary hermits established the ascetic stronghold in the fourth century. They have no personal possessions, no money, no television and no luxuries.

Their daily life is filled with religious services and meals, starting with the ritual singing of psalms at 4am and ending with vespers in the early evening.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, is a regular visitor, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the late assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and English humorist Edward Lear all made trips to the monastic community.

What is it that draws these men to visit the Holy Mountain? Could it be the beautiful surroundings, the tranquility, the frescoes?

Perhaps it is because Mount Athos is the only region in the world where you are guaranteed not to bump into women.

The ban, which includes all images of women as well as all female animals, was first decided 1,000 years ago after the Virgin Mary came to the peninsula and established Athos as a holy garden, declaring that women must never again set foot there for all eternity.

Women are forbidden within 500m of the pristine coastline of Mount Athos. The military and coast guards enforce strict controls and any woman caught trying to sneak in disguised as a man risks a prison sentence of two months to one year under a 1953 penal law.

But now the severe laws of the peninsula enclave now face their greatest challenge: European Union legislation on gender discrimination.

Anna Karamanou, a member of the European Parliament and the Chairperson of the Committee of Women's Rights and Equal Opportunities, insists the ban is unfair as women pay taxes towards the upkeep of the monasteries and the preservation of cultural treasures which belong to both men and women.

Karamanou said the ban was imposed 1,000 years ago when Europe was in the dark grip of the Middle Ages and reflects the social reality of those times.

She said it has no meaning today as it contradicts the modern understanding of human rights and the Christian faith itself. No tradition and no custom can be above the respect of human rights and dignity.

In the past few years, many of the monasteries have been lavishly renovated with EU funds, adding plumbing, electricity and new balconies.

The involvement by the European Union has raised questions on how the monks can continue to justify such gender discrimination.

The European Parliament recently passed a resolution that sought to end the ban on women entering the Mount Athos peninsula and various European MPs have even threatened to take the monks to court unless they abandon their stance.

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