Hunger strike in Jericho

Fighting Yasser Arafat and a rival branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Sister Maria Stephanopoulos hopes the pope will help in one of the many religious turf wars in the holy lands.

Topics: Religion,

Hunger strike in Jericho

As Sister Maria Stephanopoulos stepped toward the gate of the Jericho Garden monastery to receive several visiting journalists, two armed Palestinian Authority guards pulled the gate closed and rattled the metal bars menacingly.

“Why can’t they come in?” she protested.

One of the guards waved his arm dismissively: No visitors. Despite the Palestinian Authority’s pledge to allow Sister Maria to receive guests inside the compound, she settled for talking through the bars.

This has been the situation for more than 60 days at this Russian Orthodox monastery, where Sister Maria Stephanopoulos has barricaded herself among the crumbling buildings to protest Yasser Arafat’s decision to transfer the property to a rival church.

Sister Maria, whose brother is former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos and whose father is one of the most influential priests in the North American Greek Orthodox community, has been drawing international attention to an arcane struggle between two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Now, during the pope’s historic state visit to the Holy Land, Sister Maria hopes John Paul II will lend his influence to pressure Arafat to resolve the conflict. In an effort to catch the pope’s attention, Sister Maria is consuming only bread and water in a symbolic hunger strike coinciding with Lent, which began this week.

“I would hope this issue’s going to resonate with him,” she said. “He was in Poland and he really had a lot to do with the downfall of communism there, so he should certainly understand.”

The standoff began in January when Sister Maria slipped past Palestinian security forces carrying out orders to take the 3-acre monastery from the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and hand it to the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia. Both churches claim to be the official Russian Orthodox church and both say they can prove ownership of the monastery. The Moscow-based church has enjoyed a close relationship with Arafat since his guerilla fighter days, and Arafat initially agreed to place the property safely in the hands of the Moscow church.

John Paul II has no plans to meet with Sister Maria or to intervene on her behalf, according to Bishop Kamal Bathish, the Vatican’s ambassador to Jerusalem.



But that hasn’t slowed her efforts. Even with her rigorous religious lifestyle, Sister Maria has shown the Stephanopoulos public relations savvy. In the first weeks of the standoff, though she had no running water, she used a cell phone to communicate with reporters and U.S. consular officials in Israel.

Almost daily she hand writes eloquent, passionate descriptions of her situation, which she slides through the bars of the monastery gate to Sister Martha Malikoff, who has taken over Sister Maria’s headmistress duties at the Bethany School. Sister Martha then types the letters and e-mails them around the world to hundreds of informally networked friends and church colleagues.

The dusty streets of Palestinian Jericho stand in stark contrast to the overgrown monastery grounds inside the walls. There Sister Maria sleeps in a broken-down trailer, which she calls “Noah’s Ark” because it sinks into the mud during rain storms. Tall palms line the compound’s main road, and citrus and date trees planted by a monk evicted at the outset of the conflict dot the grounds. Much of Sister Maria’s day is spent in prayer. “A good day to me is when things are relatively calm and quiet,” she wrote in one of her e-mail updates recently. “I can sit peacefully a bit among the fruit trees.”

In addition to brusque treatment at the hands of the Palestinian Authority guards, Sister Maria says she is often harassed by the Moscow Patriarchate monks who occupy the other half of the compound.

Sister Maria grew up in a prominent family within the tightly knit Greek Orthodox community. Nikki Stephanopoulos, her mother, handles communications for the church’s North American Archdiocese. Her father, the Rev. Robert Stephanopoulos, leads the New York congregation, the country’s most prestigious diocese. Her brother, George, a former Rhodes scholar and White House aide, is now a political commentator for ABC News.

In an e-mail to Salon News, George Stephanopoulos said he plans to meet with his sister in Jericho in the next few days. “My greatest concern, as her brother, is that Sr. Maria remains safe and healthy, and I admire her determination,” he wrote.

The Greek Orthodox community is well-educated, largely affluent and nimbly networked, and its religious principles call for action in the secular world as well as for prayers. Since the start of the conflict, church members have sought the influence of several members of Congress. Peter Doukas, a church member who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1988, contacted Sen. Charles Schumer. Nikki Stephanopoulos enlisted friend Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents New York’s Upper East Side. Maloney quickly shot off an angry letter to Arafat, and later introduced a resolution in Congress calling on the Palestinian Authority to protect Christian holy sites and to resolve the conflict through an outside arbitrator.

Last month, a fact-finding delegation that included Nikki Stephanopoulos and representatives from the offices of Maloney, Rep. Tom Lantos and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan journeyed to Jericho. They met with officials from the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. consulate and the Moscow Patriarchate, reaching an agreement that allows Sister Maria greater access to the property, specifically to the compound’s chapel.

The agreement also guaranteed freedom of movement for Sister Maria and Sister Xenia Cesena, a San Francisco nun who until recently was holed up with Sister Maria. Despite the agreement, Sister Maria said the Moscow Patriarchate monks still prevent her from worshiping in the monastery’s chapel. “Anytime we get close they close the door in our face,” she said. “There’s no such thing as equal access.”

Officially, the Greek Orthodox Church is not in communion with Sister Maria’s “White” Russian church, which split from the Moscow Patriarchate after the 1917 revolution. That breakaway group formed the exile Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia after accusing the official Russian Church of submitting to communist rule, and is now the most conservative branch of Russian Orthodoxy. The White Russian church considers the Romanov family saints and follows the old Russian calendar.

As the Muslim call to prayer echoed across the darkening streets of Jericho, one of the Palestinian Authority guards locked the gate with a final metallic clang. Sister Maria’s blue habit dragged across the dirt path as she retreated into the monastery grounds. “I believe in the new martyrs, what they stood for,” she said, renewing her pledge to continue the protest. “The freedom of the church in the end is what it’s about.”

Rob Mank is a journalist based in New York. He reported on the Kosovo conflict for Salon News.

Abigail Beshkin is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has written for the New York Times and worked as a news anchor for WFUV public radio in New York.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>