Human trafficking and money laundering

A room full of men, in the North of Greece. All but one are dressed in black. One monk is pouring wine. A man says in a low voice: “Something big will happen soon. Don’t be alarmed, worried, or scared. It will be over in a few days.”

What sounds like a scene from a Dan Brown novel has actually happened – on Mount Athos, one of the holiest sites of the Eastern Orthodox Church, situated on an autonomous peninsula in Northern Greece. A few days before the Russian attack on Ukraine.

The prophecy was proclaimed by a Russian oligarch…

Several days after his visit, a group of extreme right-wing Russians visited a monastery on Mount Athos, waving the flag of the Russian Empire.

Russia’s Trojan Horse within the EU

This incident illustrates that Athos, this holy and spiritual place, has a dark side. BILD’s research shows the degree to which the peninsula is subverted by the Kremlin.

Foto: picture alliance / ANE

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Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos. BILD talked to the rightful Abbot, Bartholomew. He says: “Our monastery has been occupied by Russians for years”Foto: picture alliance / ANE

It has always been an open secret that Moscow tries to use Mount Athos as a Trojan Horse in order to gain a footing in Europe and to undermine the EU. The extent of this, however, is shocking.

“For years, our monastery has been occupied by Russians and pro-Russians, and no government or authority has dared to do anything about it,” Bartholomew, the rightful Abbot of Esphigmenou Monastery, tells BILD.

Since the peninsula is Greek territory, but autonomous, special rules apply to it. One of these is that women must not enter the peninsula with its 20 main monasteries, dozens of smaller churches, and approximately 2000 monks. BILD therefore met the Abbot outside the secluded peninsula, which can only be legally accessed by boat.

Foto: Michael Varaklas

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BILD reporter Liana Spyropoulou in conversation with Abbot BartholomewFoto: Michael Varaklas

“Everybody – not just me – knows that Russians have been regular visitors to Mount Athos, including these so-called oligarchs. They have donated a lot of money to the monasteries, especially to Saint Panteleimon Monastery (the most important Russian monastery). Their presence was no coincidence; and neither were the constant donations.”


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Flags of the Russian Empire hang in occupied Esphigmenou MonasteryFoto:

Foto: Michael Varaklas

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Abbot Bartholomew is the rightful Abbot of Esphigmenou Monastery, which has been occupied by pro-Russian and Russian monks for yearsFoto: Michael Varaklas

“These visits are symbolic. They fit with the expansion plans that Russia has always had for Mount Athos,” the Abbot explains.

Harbourmaster involved in human trafficking

Apart from the geopolitical games, Abbot Bartholomew also decries the Russians’ criminal activities. “We told the Greek authorities about the illegal use of the speedboats, which – in contrast to the other boats – were never controlled by the coastguard,” he tells BILD.

“The harbourmaster always told the occupiers when the coast guard’s boats were on patrol or otherwise deployed. (…) After the police had arrested the regional coast guard’s senior official, several women were brought ashore. If I remember correctly, they came from Ukraine …,” Abbot Bartholomew continues.

The suspicion is that these women were brought ashore by a trafficker’s boat and left there after the official’s arrest.

The oligarchs’ business centre

Christos, an informant (name changed, ed.) confirmed to BILD that the incident with the coast guard Commander and the trafficking actually took place. He knows even more: “One of his closest members of staff (…) has disappeared after the arrest and now owns a bar in Germany.”

Christos also confirmed to BILD that an oligarch knew about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine when he visited the monastery and prepared the monks for it.

He says: “Mount Athos is a holy place, and they made it their business centre. Russian oligarchs and government elites kept arriving in Thessaloniki. While their wives and children spent their holidays in the Chalkidiki resorts in the Aegean, the men travelled to Athos.”

According to Christos, the reason is: “In the religious surroundings, it is safe for them to have discussions or to do what they want.”

Greek authorities investigate criminals

Many of the “guests” on Athos have been sanctioned by the West because of the war on Ukraine. This is hardly a coincidence.

The main activity of many of the Russians on Athos is money laundering.

A Greek official, who agreed to talk to BILD anonymously, describes the Russian money laundering as “babushka”: “We know how the money has arrived, but we don’t know how it has disappeared. But we will find it. We have a list of persons who are investigated. Of course, this also includes persons belonging to the Church.”

“The problem with Athos is that we have limited access to the place due to is holy nature. We cannot even monitor the telecommunications – not even the Americans can,” the official says.

Secret report details criminal activities

BILD has seen a secret report by the Greek authorities that gives the names of well-known Russians who have visited Athos; their connections to Kremlin dictator Vladimir Putin; which monasteries they made donations to; and which roles the Abbots of these monasteries played.

The report also lists the monasteries that are investigated by the authorities. BILD has seen the list, but cannot make it public as long as the investigation continues.

► The conclusion of the report: “The Kremlin capitalizes on the common (Christian-Orthodox) religion. In order to achieve its goals, it uses civil servants and oligarchs who try to strengthen the Russian presence via donations to the monasteries and support for certain Abbots and other Orthodox leaders.”

Putin’s visit to Mount Athos

Kremlin dictator Vladimir Putin has strengthened the Russian presence on Mount Athos with his repeated visits.

And not only that: he was accompanied by Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian particularly active on Athos. He is currently on the EU’s and US’s sanction lists because he allegedly finances the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Abbot Bartholomew tells BILD: “On his own TV channel, Malofeev said that the moment when Putin set foot on Athos in 2016 was blessed.”

Foto: picture alliance / Kremlin Pool

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The head of the Russian-Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin visited Saint Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos in 2016Foto: picture alliance / Kremlin Pool

A businessman loyal to Putin: “The West hates to know that we pray for Russia”

Mikhail Yakuschew, a businessman loyal to Putin (and Director of the nationalist Russian think tank Katehon), finds a suitable explanation: “The West hates to know that many Athonites (monks on Mount Athos) are praying for Russia, Putin, and the Russian people. They do not only want to punish rich Russians, but also His Holiness Patriarch Kirill.”

Yakuschew claims that the West does not understand the Russian donors’ “generosity”, because “the medieval Christian tradition of love of neighbour” is dead in Europe.

► The Greek authorities see this differently. There will be a “thorough review of the people who enter and leave Mount Athos in order to prevent people from transporting weapons, drugs, and other illegal objects, and from carrying out other suspicious activities.” The same applies to visitors “with possible connections to political figures or the ambitions of other countries.”

Kremlin campaign led to release of criminal monk

The following are only some elements of the report concerning the investigations against monasteries tied up with Russia:

In Saint Panteleimon, known as “the Russian monastery”, lives Abbot Evlogios, the most powerful contact of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian-Orthodox church. On Mount Athos, he functions as the most stable “facilitator” of Russian ambitions in this region.

Foto: AP

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Saint Panteleimon Monastery is also known as “the Russian monastery”Foto: AP

Evlogios is in contact with the diplomats from the Russian embassy in Greece and with several of the oligarchs who support the monastery.

According to the secret report, several managers of Gazprom and its subsidiary, Magistral, along with other influential Russians (their names are known to BILD) are involved in Saint Panteleimon and continuously support the monastery financially.

► In Vatopedi Monastery, Abbot Ephraim was involved in a major corruption scandal between the Greek government and the church, in which hundreds of millions were laundered. He is very close to Patriarch Kirill. When Ephraim was arrested, a public outcry in Greece – headed by the Kremlin leadership – led to his release.

Foto: Getty Images

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The Abbot of Vatopedi Monastery was involved in a major case of corruption – until the Kremlin campaigned for his releaseFoto: Getty Images

Foto: Getty Images

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Filotheou: the Abbot of the monastery has personal relations with the family of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail MishustinFoto: Getty Images

► Abbot Nikodimos of Filotheou Monastery has private relations with the family of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. The monastery cooperates closely with Vatopedi Monastery. In the summer of 2020, Abbot Nikodimos was arrested for illegal gun possession at an airport on Crete. The gun was apparently a gift by a Russian oligarch.

► According to the report by the Greek authorities, many of the monks who live in Esphigmenou Monastery have been convicted of various crimes and have close relations to extreme right-wing and nationalistic groups (from Russia and Greece) that finance the monastery.

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Liana Spyropoulou and Michael Varaklas photos