Another development in the ongoing church-vs.-state conflict over the Orthodox patriarchate in the Holy Land, with (as ever) the struggle over West Bank lands and the future of Jerusalem in the background. From the Jerusalem Post, Dec. 19, emphasis and interjections added:
Court freezes recognition of Greek Patriarch
In a new legal twist, the High Court of Justice on Wednesday froze Israeli recognition of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, reopening a bitter international dispute that has roiled the church.
The decision by the country’s highest court to issue a temporary injunction in the case came just three days after the government approved the patriarch’s appointment, two years after he was first appointed to the post.
The court order was handed down after Theophilos’s predecessor, Irineos I, who has been fighting his own dismissal, appealed against the Israeli government move. The court is expected to rule on the issue next week.
The dispute over who heads the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land is especially significant because of the church’s extensive property holdings in Jerusalem and throughout the country. Those holdings include the land on which the Knesset and the prime minister’s residence are located, as well as an array of historic buildings in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Really? The Knesset?
Irineos was ousted two years ago amid allegations of leasing church property in the Old City to an Israeli company, in a move that would further strengthen the Jewish presence in the area. Irineos has said that a former aide signed the leases without his knowledge.
The aide [Nicholas Papadimas], who has fled the country and is wanted by Interpol on an international warrant for allegedly usurping millions of dollars from the Patriarchate’s coffers, remains at large, although he is thought to be in South America.
The appointment of the 55-year-old Theophilos, whose election has been approved by the Palestinians and the Jordanians had, until this week, been held up by Israel, which previously backed Irineos.
The Sunday cabinet decision to approve the appointment came nearly two months after a special ministerial committee led by Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan recommended such a move.
“The legal situation has not changed, and only the Israeli government has changed its position based on promises that Theophilos made,” said Father Irineos, a supporter of Irineos I who served as chairman of the church’s finance department (but is not related to the former patriarch).
By church law dating back to the Ottoman rule, any new patriarch must be approved by the three local governments – Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan.
OK, we don’t quite get that, given that in Ottoman times Palestine and Jordan were mere administrative divisions and Israel didn’t exist at all. Can anyone explain?
Reports of the east Jerusalem property sale to Jews have aroused the ire of the Palestinians, who make up most of the 100,000-strong Greek Orthodox flock in the Holy Land.
The properties allegedly sold in the controversial land deal include the Imperial and Petra hotels inside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. The actual deal remains shrouded in mystery almost three years later.
The always-reliable Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion provides some more context:
Irineos’s troubles…stem from the sale of church-owned land in east Jerusalem to a front-group for Israeli settlers. Naturally this rather annoyed and embarrassed Palestinian Orthodox Christians, who are generally fed up with Greek leadership anyway. Irineos claimed that the deal had been made without his knowledge by his treasurer, Nicholas Papadimas, who is now reportedly in hiding in South America. Theophilos agreed to cancel the sale (although prevarication led to temporary de-recognition by Jordan in May), which is one reason Israel prefers Irineos – there is also concern over future leaseholds on church-owned land in west Jerusalem, including on the site of the Knesset. However, Theophilos’s position was strengthened in October when Condoleezza Rice chose to meet him in Bethlehem.
Bartholomew notes that the reactionary WorldNetDaily‘s Aaron Klein disses Theophilos as the “‘no-land-to-Jews’ cleric,” predictably claiming that he is motivated by anti-Semitism rather than fear of escalating Israeli hegemony over East Jerusalem. Klein also quotes Bishop Atallah Hanna, who says “We as a church will fight any smuggling of real estate to Jewish organizations.”
There may, in fact, be some actual anti-Semitism at play here. Annotates Bartholomew:
Hanna is a particularly slippery figure: he insists that reports in sympathetic Arab newspapers quoting him as supporting suicide bombers were fabricated, and he is opposed to Irineos for reasons of his own. In May 2005 he claimed not to be against a land-deal per se:
“The Israelis may not have understood us. The problem is not the sale of lands to Jews, but rather the lack of proper management and transparency, and fraud.”
Another group backing Theophilos over Irineos is the Roman Catholic Church. Asia News reminds us bitterly that Irineos
…is infamous for having urged his followers to engage in open combat against the friars of the Holy Sepulchre and for having continually sought to create difficulties regarding the upkeep of sacred sights jointly owned with Catholics.
We have noted before the unseemly monastic slugfests at the Holy Sepulchre (as well as internecine orthodox slugfests at the Greek abbey of Esphigmenou). But Batholomew’s closing words are the most revealing:
Irineos doesn’t care much for Jews, either, and he is on record as feeling “disgust and disrespect…for the descendants of the crucifiers”. For some reason, such a view didn’t prevent him enjoying Israel’s backing until earlier this week, nor does it inhibit him from asking for Israel’s help now.