• FEATURES \ Jul 03, 2001
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    Unholy interests in a church election
Unholy interests in a church election Officials in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy of Jerusalem are accusing Israel of delaying the election of a new patriarch for the church. Powerful political and economic interests - Israeli and Palestinian - have an interest in the outcome of those elections. According to reports in the Palestinian press last week, patriarchy officials say they are considering electing a new patriarch without the approval of the Israeli government, a move that would be a contravention of the church's own constitution. But to understand what's going on in this importance church institution, a look back a few months into the past is necessary.

Seven months ago Diodoros I, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, passed away. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem is by far and a way the most powerful individual of all the Christians in the Holy Land. Established in the year 451, a millennium-and-a-half ago, as protector of Jesus's grave in Jerusalem, his office has enormous real estate holdings throughout the country, including hundreds of buildings, churches, monasteries, educational institutions, factories, apartments and even full streets of commercial property.

With the death of the patriarch, the church began preparations for elections for a successor. First, a temporary replacement, Bishop Cornelius, was put in the job. He's also one of the candidates for the top position in the church here. His previous job was responsibility for the church's courts, which cover 400,000 members of the flock in Israel, the territories and Jordan.

A few months later, the 17 Greek members of the church's synod, its supreme governing body, gathered, together with 12 Arab priests, responsible for the various districts in the Holy Land, to prepare a list of candidates for the job. For hundreds of years there has been an underlying tension between the Greek priests and the Arab priests, since the Greeks prevent the Arabs from sending a representative to the synod and prevent Arabs from rising too high in the church hierarchy. The Arabs claim the Greeks are corrupt and don't serve the best interests of their Arab flock.

The 29 Greek and Arab priests prepared a list of 15 candidates, and the list needs the approval of the government ruling the territories where the patriarch operates - Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Jordan took a while, but approved the list. So have the Palestinians. But Israel is delaying. Why?

The answer is not clear. In the new refurbished offices of the patriarch in the Old City of Jerusalem officials say they've done all they can to speed up the Israeli approval. The ambassadors from Greece and Russia both have become involved in asking for the government to approve the list. The patriarch wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asking him to approve the list.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, a group calling itself the "Executive Committee of the Orthodox Arab Committee" went to the High Court asking for both the patriarch and the Religious Affairs Ministry to explain why there are no Arabs involved in the election procedures.

There may not be any chance that an Arab will be elected head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem but Arab members of the community want to strengthen their position in the church and in the election process. But it's clear that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the PA are doing their utmost behind the scenes to make sure whichever of the Greek bishops who becomes patriarch is to their approval. The Palestinians apparently prefer Bishop Irianus, who in recent years has been the representative of the Jerusalem patriarchy in Greece. The Jerusalem patriarchy is a kind of mini-state with embassies around the world. Palestinian officials openly say they are backing Irianus.

The next stage of the election process brings together 50 top officials of the church, including some Arabs, to narrow down the list of 15 to three. One of them will become patriarch, chosen by the Holy Synod. Since nobody in the synod is Arab, there's no chance they'll pick an Arab, but the Arabs on the panel of 50 have a role in picking the three finalists.

The campaign has not been clean. One candidate has been accused of having sex with Arab altar boys. Politics has been part of the campaign. Irianus has been accused of masquerading as a friend of the Arabs, but actually of having met with Sharon. Irianus, who is in the country nowadays, and his supporters, fought back. On May 28, in Al Hayat el Jedida, the official PA journal, he ran a vigorous denial of any contact with Sharon. "I have no connection with the Israeli government, neither direct nor indirect," he said. "I stand alongside the Palestinian people, and my only ambition is to defend the church's property."

The report abut Irianus's denial also included allegations that another of the candidates does have contacts with the government and "played a role in selling church lands."

But candidates other than Irianus are also doing what they can to please the Palestinians. This was evident in the case of the 34-year-old Thessaloniki-born monk killed in a shooting ambush on his way back to the monastery at Wadi Kelt. Germanus Tzivokazis arrived in Israel in 1990 and was shot dead two weeks ago on the Jerusalem-Ma'ale Adumim road at 10:30 P.M., by Palestinians who assumed the Israeli license plates on the monastery vehicle meant the driver as an Israeli.

Palestinian spokesmen, including Yasser Arafat, were quick to blame Israel and the settlers for the murder. They said the area is under Israeli security control, and that the incident took place near an Israeli checkpoint. Inside the patriarchy, there were officials who were quick to accept the Palestinian version of the events. At the funeral in Wadi Kelt, Bishop Tifanos, a member of the synod, said "we lay the blame for what happened on the Israelis whose continuing policy of arrogance and aggressive occupation is one of the reasons for this painful terrible incident."

He and other spokesmen called for a vigorous investigation and capture of the perpetrators. His eulogy received wide coverage in the Greek press, leading the spokesman for the Greek Foreign Ministry to say that efforts must be made to strengthen the sense of security for church property.

Two weeks went by, and the Shin Bet captured the murderers, Tanzim operatives from Ramallah who confessed they thought the monk was an Israeli. So far, the patriarch has not said a word about the arrests.

For a long time, Bishop Timotheus was considered Israel's preferred candidate. He's the youngest of the candidates, and as secretary of the patriarch he is considered the most powerful of the church officials after the patriarch himself. But things aren't so simple. Apparently, there are government officials who support some of the pro-Palestinian candidates, particularly Irianus. The fact that the patriarch is kind of a chief executive officer of one of the largest real estate holding companies in the country makes him of particular interest to powerful economic forces here.

"The late patriarch, Diodoros, paid a fortune to the bishops of the synod to elect him," one official in the patriarchy said this weekend. He thinks that behind the scenes, there are some major deals being made, and until they are completed, Jerusalem will hold up its decision on the elections for the new Greek Orthodox patriarch in the Holy Land.