Τhe prohibition of
men's entry and sojourn in convents and the prohibition of women's entry and
sojourn in monasteries, that is, the
avaton in its strict sense, is a very old concept deriving from the very
essence of the monastic movement,
especially since the abandonment of every material pleasure
by the first anchorites included sexual continence in the broadest sense.
The avaton principle has
been faithfully observed by all the Monasteries
of Mount Athos without exception ever since they were founded. Α brief introduction to the status of Mount Athos would
perhaps be useful at this point.
Pursuant to Article 105 of the 1975/1986/2001
Greek Constitution, the Athos peninsula, beyond Megali Vigla, and constituting
the region of Mount Athos (Holy Mountain/ Άγιον Όρος), is, in
accordance with its ancient privileged status, a self-governed part of the
Greek State, whose sovereignty thereon remains intact.
On Mount Athos
there exist a total of twenty sovereign Monasteries,
which are legal entities of public law. Attached to them , as dependencies are
other monastic establishments, such as sketes, kellia, kalyves etc., with no separate
of Mount Athos, which are all coenobitic again today, are directly subject to
the spiritual jurisdiction of the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Mount Athos is also supervised by the Greek State
through the Governor of Mount Athos, appointed by presidential decree on a
recommendation from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and having, according to
the new Internal Regulation of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the rank and
remuneration of the Secretary General of a Region.
Within Mount Athos,
there is a clear distinction between the administration of the monastic
community of the twenty Monasteries and the administration of each
The administration of the entire Mount Athos is
exercised by the Holy Community, which consists of twenty members
representatives of the twenty Monasteries,
with its seat at the capital municipality
of Karyes. These
representatives are elected pursuant to each Monastery's
By-Law and hold office for one year. The executive authority is exercised by
the four-member Holy Epistasia, i.e.
representatives chosen by rotation on the basis
of a tetrad system: the twenty Monasteries
are divided into five tetrads, with one of the five senior Athonite Monasteries as
the first member of each tetrad. Each tetrad in turn takes over the Holy Epistasia for a year, headed by a member of the senior
monastery of the tetrad as chief monk, the Protepistates (or Protos, i.e.
The supreme administrative organ, meeting twice a
year, namely fifteen days after Easter
and on 20 August, is the extraordinary twenty-member Holy Assembly, consisting
of the Abbots of the twenty Monasteries.
Each one of the Holy Monasteries
of Mount Athos is administered by the Abbot, the Assembly of the Elders and the
Abbot's Council. The abbot is elected by secret ballot for a life term of
office by all the members of the brotherhood, who have completed at least six years after their tonsure. The Assembly of
Elders is elected for a life term of office according to the provisions of the
internal organisation of each Monastery.
Finally, the Abbot's Council consists of two or three members, depending on the
provisions of each Monastery's
internal organisation, and is elected every year by the Assembly of Elders from
among its members.
Within the Mount Athos
territory, only the twenty Holy Monasteries
have the right of ownership. The entire peninsula of Athos
is divided among them and its territory is exempt from expropriation, according
to express constitutional provision (Article 105 of the Constitution). The monastic brotherhood attends to the administration of
the movable and immovable property of the Monasteries,
which is, however, exercised by the Abbot and the Abbot's Council.
The customary origin of the avaton is also
confirmed in the legislation in force, namely Article 186 of the Constitutional
Charter of Mount Athos (1924), effective since 1926 through its ratification by
the Greek State by the Legislative Decree of 10/16 September 1926. According to
this provision of the Constitutional Charter, the entry of females in the Athos
peninsula is, according to the ancient custom, forbidden. However, from the
point of view of public law, this provision was
a lex imperfecta, since it did not provide for sanctions in the event of
violation. Only the measure of
deportation from the Mount Athos territory
could be taken against a woman violating the avaton.
However, this provision was
subsequently complemented by a law penalising the violation of the avaton, as a result of the disembarkation of several ladies
on the Mount Athos territory during the 9th
International Congress of Byzantine Studies, convened in April 1953 in Thessalonica.
Legislation Decree 2623/1953 stipulated that the violation of the avaton incurs
a penalty of imprisonment for a period between two months to one year, which,
according to the general provisions of the Penal Code, can now be commuted into
a pecuniary penalty.
We shall now proceed with the discussion of the
possible reservations that have been raised from time to time as to constitutionality of the legal provision
establishing the Mount Athos avaton.
A first superficial approach might lead to the
conclusion that the prohibition of women's entry into the Mount
Athos territory contravenes the principle of equality and/or
constitutes a restriction of personal freedom. Both the principle of freedom and
free movement of persons are enshrined not only in the Constitution of Greece,
but also in many international treaties that have been ratified by Greece and
constitute an integral part of Greek law and, what is more, prevail over any
opposite provision of law as
prescribed by the Constitution.
a. The principle of equality, enshrined in Article 4 of the
Constitution, obligates the legislator to treat in an equal or similar manner
all Greek citizens under the same or similar conditions and prohibits any
favourable or unfavourable treatment of the same by way of exception from the
However, the principle of equality does not
preclude the different statutory regulation of dissimilar or different cases, or cases
occurring under different or special conditions. On the contrary, in such cases different treatment is imperative, because
various special reasons, social,
economic, religious etc., fully justify different treatment, provided that such
different treatment is objective and is based
on general and impersonal criteria.
Such is the case
with the avaton. All women are forbidden entry in Mount
Athos, without any exception. There would be a case of violation of the principle of equality, only
if specific categories of women or only women meeting some specific criteria
were allowed entry.
b. Personal freedom, which according to Article 5 paragraph
3 of the Constitution is inviolable, is not unlimited - as
indeed is the case with any other
individual right. The Constitution expressly mentions that freedom of movement
may be restricted, when and as
stipulated by law.
Naturally, such restrictions on personal freedom
and particularly the free movement of any person cannot be arbitrary. They
should be justified by sufficient reasons
serving the general public or social interest and it is up to the courts to
examine whether such conditions concur.
none has ever thought of contesting
the constitutionality of other restrictions on the free movement of persons,
such as the prohibition of entry
into military areas or the
prohibition of hunting or fishing in several areas
or during certain seasons etc., for
the same legal reason there is no
violation of the Constitution in the case
of the avaton.
the article by Ioannis M. Konidaris
”The Mount Athos Avaton”
The author is Prof. of Ecclesiastical Law at Athens Univ.,
and Secretary General for Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Education and
Religious Affairs of Greece.