• TOP STORIES \ Aug 13, 2001
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    Irineos is the New Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem
Irineos is the New Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem The Greek Orthodox Church on Monday elected Irineos I, a 62-year-old bishop, as its new patriarch in the Holy Land, the most powerful of all the Christian prelates in the country as the owner of almost all the Christian holy sites as well as real estate ranging from Jaffa's flea market to Acre, Ramle, Gaza, and the heart of Jerusalem.

The election climaxed an eight-month campaign that began with the death of the previous patriarch, Diodoros I. It was accompanied by rumors of corruption, and included a botched last-minute effort by mid-ranking Israeli officials to prevent the nomination of five candidates - including Irineos - for what the officials said was suspicion of corruption but which the 100,000-strong Greek Orthodox community of Arabs in the Holy Land believed was a clumsy intervention to prevent a pro-Palestinian patriarch from being elected.

Irineos I, born on the Greek island of Samos, was elected in two rounds of voting.

The procedure, more than 1,500 years old, began at 10 A.M. with the convening of 50 priests and leading prelates at the church compound, to vote for the three finalists from the 15 nominees. Then, in the final round of voting, which took place in the Holy Sepulchre, the 17 bishops of the Holy Synod cast their votes. All 17 are Greek, a matter of rising concern to the community, which is spread over Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Irineos was elected with seven votes. His rivals, Metropolitans Timotheos and Kornelios, received five votes each. All three were among the five Israel tried to scotch. Under a law dating back to Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who ruled in the 6th century, the government in the Holy Land has the right to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of patriarch. The list of candidates was submitted to the governments of Israel and Jordan, as well as the Palestinian Authority. While Jordan and the PA approved all 15, Israel rejected five of the nominees. But a High Court petition against the government's intervention combined with the diplomatic scandal forced Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit to rescind his earlier decision to disqualify the five.

Irineos I arrived in Jerusalem in 1953, and graduated from the church's theological seminary in 1963. He represented the Jerusalem church in Athens in 1972 before returning to the Holy Land nine years later to become a bishop and a member of the Synod.

In a speech following his election, Irineos I thanked the priests and sent special regards to King Abdullah of Jordan and to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "I will serve the church and I support the Palestinian people and their just issues," he said in a statement. The church is to ask Jordan and the PA for their approval of the new patriarch. The statement did not mention whether the church would seek approval from Israel, but Rev. Christos Pizanty said that Irineos I was slated to meet this afternoon with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The chairman of the church's lay committee, Yosef Dik, last night welcomed Irineos' election and called on the Patriarch "to open a new chapter in its relations with the community in Israel." The community appealed to the High Court several months ago to seek implementation of the law requiring the church to establish an integrated council of priests and laymen and to set aside a third of the church's revenue from its properties to the welfare of the community.

Dik said that "we hope the new patriarch will lead the community with a new and open spirit for all members of the community to be full partners in all secular aspects of the community, like representation, school building, mutual aid, refurbishing holy sites, and protecting church property, particularly the land."

The church's vast real estate holdings make it one of the largest landlords in the country. In the past there have been controversies over the church's land dealings with developers, with complaints about kickbacks and bribery and property being sold at below-market prices. The rumors have included mention of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Greek and even Russian developers, all of whom have sought favor with the church in the effort to win access to valuable church property.

After the death of the last patriarch, a secret government committee was formed, including representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office, the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Justice Ministry and Jerusalem city hall, to decide whether and how the government should intervene in the elections. Former police chief Rafi Peled was named to head the committee, but he resigned and the committee never met.

In its absence - and the absence of a policy - several mid-ranking officials were left to handle the matter. The speculation and rumors of corruption led them to formulate Israel's opposition to five of the nominees, which Justice Minister Sheetrit rubber-stamped, later retracting his decision, explaining that he did not know enough about the issue and that he had simply followed instructions from the PMO.

Church sources said last night that Israel should not be worried about the election of Irineos, despite his well-known close connections to the PLO leadership - and despite the attempted Israeli intervention in the vote. "Imagine what would have happened if the French government got involved in the election of the French Chief Rabbi," said one source last night.