Nov. 16, 2000 -- Cyprus’ Orthodox clergy is in turmoil as one popular bishop faces defrocking for homosexual activities, while another, accused of defrauding a British businessman, is being hunted by the police.
Bishop Athanassios of Limassol went on trial Wednesday before the hierarchy of the conservative Greek Orthodox church on charges of “looking at men,” church sources said.
The session, known as the Major Holy Synod, is only the second to have taken place in the 2,000-year history of the Church of Cyprus, which traces its lineage back to founder Barnabas, one of Christ’s first companions.
The last Holy Synod was in 1974, again in Cyprus, when some bishops resisted the authority of Archbishop Makarios, another Cypriot legendary figure whose statues dot the Mediterranean island.
Athanassios stands accused by rival clergy of having had gay sex with fellow monks and others when he was a novice at the Greek Mount Athos monastery stronghold, from which all women are banned. If found guilty he could be defrocked.
Publicly, the church has studiously avoided specifying the charges against Athanassios and merely refer to it as “the known issue.”
A relatively young bishop who has a large and enthusiastic following particularly among young people, Athanassios denies claims he had homosexual relationships.
The soft-spoken former monk is widely seen as a favorite to become the next Archbishop when the incumbent dies.
One of his detractors is a former monk-turned-hairdresser who said he was seduced by the Bishop when they were both at Mount Athos, an all-male monastic commune in Greece.
Athanassios fled to Greece when homosexuality charges were first leveled at him, only returning after Cyprus scrapped laws making gay sex a criminal offense. On his return home, he was mobbed by his supporters, mainly from the countryside, where he enjoys immense popularity.
Outsiders say the feud runs to the heart of a simmering division in the church between the purist form of Orthodoxy Athanassios is deemed to represent, and the worldly bishops of Cyprus who are equally at home running businesses as giving spiritual guidance.
“The current establishment is seen as materialistic...so to see someone who puts spirituality first and who rejects power and prominence is like water in the desert,” said sociologist Nicos Peristianis.
Two Cypriot priests and three leading church laymen have been charged in Cyprus courts with conspiring to defame Athanassios in what is seen as a plot by a part of the Cyprus church establishment to stop his rapid rise towards church leadership on the island.
By unfortunate coincidence, the church also had to suffer the indignity on Tuesday of an arrest warrant being put out for the former Limassol Bishop Chrysamthos who is facing fraud charges in court.
The bishop, who resigned two years ago in the midst of allegations he masterminded a suspect get-rich-quick scheme to dupe foreign investors, had ignored a court summons to appear on fraud charges.
His lawyers managed to get the warrant overturned on Wednesday when the cleric appeared in court. The case was adjourned until January.
Chrysamthos, who has been banned from conducting services but allowed to keep his residence, servants and salary, could go to jail for three years if found guilty of this and other frauds.
ABCNEWS.com’s Sue Masterman in Austria and Reuters contributed to this report.