Monks of Mt Athos fear new gender law could enable women into their all-male sanctuary

Nick Squires
Around 2,000 monks live on the peninsula known collectively as Mt Athos - AFP

For more than a thousand years, they have allowed only men to enter their ancient stone monasteries.

But the monks of Mt Athos in Greece now fear that the peace and quiet of their all-male sanctuary is at risk from a new law that allows people to change their gender.

The law, which was passed last week by the parliament in Athens, allows Greeks over the age of 15 to change the gender listed on their identity cards through a simplified court ruling, without proving they have undergone sex-change surgery.

The Orthodox monks fear that the law will enable women to simply declare themselves men in order to earn the right to access the jealously-guarded peninsula in northern Greece.

The rugged peninsula is home to 20 monasteries and more than 2,000 monks, some of whom shun the relative comfort of dormitories and refectories to seek even greater isolation in tiny shacks bolted to vertical cliffs.

Monks fear the consequences of the new gender law Credit: Getty

It has special autonomy and access is strictly limited to just 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox a day, who are admitted for a three-night stay.

The heads of the monasteries wrote a letter to the Greek government, expressing their concerns over the consequences of the new law.

“In light of this legislation, we are full of unease as to what the future holds for us,” they said. 

“It is another violation of God's law, just like existing legislation which permits cohabitation agreements between same-sex couples. If we do not resist, then our ancestors will rise from their graves.”

The monks’ concerns mirror the condemnation of the Orthodox Church as a whole, which has fiercely condemned the new law.

There are 20 monasteries on the peninsula in northern Greece Credit: Getty

The legislation was "an outrageous inspiration to allow a person to change gender with a simple application, in a few minutes, contrary to what God gave humans," Church leaders said. “Whoever has 'gender dysphoria' is mentally ill."

The Church said the law “opposed human nature and biology” and would create “unrest and confusion”.

Churches in some parts of Greece have vowed to ring their bells in mourning every day this week to protest against the law.

"We may turn it into a protest movement," said Metropolitan Amvrosios, a conservative bishop from western Greece. "We may be able to influence others too and lead to a revolt." 

The Church demanded the repeal of the law, calling it "anti-Christian and anti-Greek". Some bishops have branded the legislation “satanic”.

Founded in the 10th century, the monastic communities of Mt Athos make up one of the most revered places in the Orthodox world. 

The new law on gender declaration has been fiercely opposed by the Greek Orthodox Church. The shadow of a church is seen in Plaka, a historic district of Athens. Credit: AP

Even female domestic animals are banned from the peninsula, except for its large population of cats, which are valued for their mouse-catching abilities.

Women have no chance of entering the 130 square mile peninsula and are even banned from approaching closer than 500 yards from the coast.

The monks spend much of their time in prayer in candle-lit chapels, but also make wine, catch fish, tend vegetable gardens and maintain their monasteries.

The bill passed by 171 votes in Greece's 300-seat parliament and was welcomed by LGBT activists. During the debate in parliament, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, urged MPs to support the new law, declaring: “We are on the side of those who have no voice, or whose voice is stifled.”

The legislation was opposed by conservative politicians, who said it made no sense to allow 15-year-olds to make such an important decision.

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