Tradition holds Mount Athos, a spiritual oasis on the Grecian peninsula of Halkidiki, was a gift of God to the Virgin Mary. Her picture is present throughout the Holy Mount, but she is the only woman the 1,700 Athonian monks living in 20 monasteries will see on the land.
For more than 1,000 years, in respect of a monastic tradition separating the sexes to allow them to focus on their spiritual tasks, women have been banned from Mount Athos. Time may no longer be on their side.
A growing number of Orthodox women are protesting the ban, asserting what they say is their theological and political rights to share in the mystical fruits of this symbol of Orthodox spirituality.
From Facebook groups to political lobbying, they and allies for women's rights have been seeking to overturn the ban. Social conditions, including a growing movement in Western Christianity for sexual equality in churches, have changed dramatically since 1046 when Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomahos issued a "Chryssobull," or edict, prohibiting all females from entering the peninsula, advocates say.
"Catholic and Orthodox churches still refuse to recognize that men and women are of equal value and deserve equal respect and equal rights," says Anna Karamanou, a member of the Facebook group Allow Women to Visit Mount Athos.
Nausicaa M. Jackson, another group member says all the faithful should have access to the spiritual gifts of Mount Athos.
"Mount Athos is a place for every believer, and women have a very special and privileged place by God through the Virgin Mary, so what Mount Athos is today, is an anti-Christian place!"
For the monks, however, the ban on woman is an issue of faith, not sexism.
Dositej Hilandarac, a monk from the Athonian monastery Hilandar, explains that it's not a problem with women per se, but the fact that Athos monasteries function in accordance with Avaton rule (meaning literally: entry is prohibited), which strictly forbids females from entering the Holy Mount.
Throughout Christian history, many religious communities of men and women have chosen to live apart to focus their lives on their spiritual mission. The monks' lives of devotion to God include the practices of scarcity and asceticism as well as virginity, seeking to remove any barriers, including sexual desire, to their pursuit of spiritual peace and holiness.
The all-male monasteries enable the monks to engage in the continuous practice of prayer and repentance that helps purify their souls of worldly desires, and focus on growing in faith, says Monk Seraphim.
Those seeking to overturn the ban have won important victories.
A European Parliament Resolution in 2003 condemned the ban as a violation of sexual equality and citizens' freedom of movement.
Professor Eleni Chontodolou, a Greek feminist, says it is a civil as well as a religious issue
"I pay taxes for these monasteries and their restorations, and I am equally human being as you (men) and I do not see reason of not being allowed to get in Mount Athos," she says.
But the "Avaton" prohibition ratified by the Greek Parliament in 1926 remains in place. Some government officials say the monks have legal rights as an autonomous region of Greece, often comparing it to the Vatican as an identical state with autonomous status.
Modern women are permitted to enjoy the "womanless land" only if they take tour boats. Even then, they are limited to approaching no more than 500 meters from the Athos coast.
Mt. Athos has opened its doors to women (and children) in wars and epidemics. In 1347, Serbian Queen Jelena Kantakuzin sought refuge there from the Great Plague. Serbian princess Mara Brankovic got permission to visit some monasteries in gratitude for her donation.
There is one way even the monks agree the ban could be overturned. That is when creation is restored to the paradise of the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve defied God, said one Orthodox leader on the Holy Mount.
The prohibition "could be abolished if human beings could be as simple as they were before the original sin," said Athonian Father Christos Mitsios. "If this was the case, not even God could enforce an Avaton."
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