• ISRAEL \ Sep 01, 2002
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    An unorthodox tangle
An unorthodox tangle Ever since Metropolitan Irineos was elected patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church last year, becoming the most powerful Christian clergyman in the country, he has not won the official approval by the government of Israel mandated by church canon. Now, a new chapter has begun in the struggle between Israel and the patriarch, who has long been considered pro-Palestinian: He has complained to the police that his signature was forged on a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising to hand over to the government ownership of church property already used by Israel. It may be an Israeli extortion ploy: the ownership in exchange for official recognition.

Among those vying for the post last year, Metropolitan Irineos was considered to be the Palestinian candidate - indeed, Yasser Arafat's nominee. During the last 15 years, as he represented the Jerusalem patriarchate in Greece, he indeed made many pro-Palestinian statements, but it seems his reputation as a PLO supporter is mostly the result of the Israeli government's efforts to prevent him from becoming the Patriarch in Jerusalem.

The 1,500-year-old Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem is the oldest in the country, owning vast amounts of property and businesses, churches, monasteries, educational and welfare institutions, land, houses, and hundreds of business in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the West Bank, the Galilee, Jaffa, Lod, Ramle, Gaza, Jericho, Amman and throughout Jordan. The church also owns property in Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Eastern Europe and the United States.

The election of a new patriarch is accompanied by lobbying by powerful commercial and financial interests including the real estate, construction and brokerage industries, often backed by political support.

Church canon says that the list of nominees for the patriarchy - a papal-type position that is answerable to no-one and wields absolute control over the church's finances and business holdings - must be approved by the government that is sovereign over the patriarch's jurisdiction, meaning the governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. In July 2001, after Jordan and the PA approved the list of nominees to replace the late Diodoros, who died in December 2000 after 20 years in office, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit announced that the government ruled out the candidacy of Irineos - without any right of appeal. There were other candidates on the list of nominees, including Cornelius, who was filling in as acting patriarch since the death of Diodoros, and Timotheus, considered the patriarchate's financial mastermind, but it was clear to all that Irineos was the leading candidate.

Spokesmen for the patriarchate, including Arab spokesmen on behalf of the 200,000 members of the church in the Holy Land, were furious. What right did the Israeli justice minister have to rule out candidates to head a Christian church in Israel? "Imagine if the French justice minister were to disapprove of a candidate for the chief rabbi of France," said one article in the East Jerusalem press.

Some of the patriarchate's leading figures appealed to the High Court of Justice through attorney Yaakov Ne'eman. A few days later, Sheetrit sheepishly retracted his announcement rejecting Irineos, and approved his nomination and those of the others.

Already then it was clear the government was confused about the entire matter. Sheetrit acted without really knowing what it was all about. The real decision-making was done by a committee of senior officials that met one or twice in the Prime Minister's Office, secretly lobbied by officials from the security establishment and the Jerusalem municipality who tried to tilt its decisions according to their respective interests. Enormous pressure was brought to bear on the officials - and the ministers in charge of them - by business people, brokers, land dealers, financiers, contractors and various large companies from Israel and overseas.

Limited authority

The entire episode should have ended with Irineos's election. But according to church law, the new patriarch, who is elected by a synod over a period of time in discussions held by various church bodies, required the final approval of the authorities. The Jordanian government and the PA were quick to provide that approval. But Israel was not.

The elected patriarch waited a few weeks and then decided to hold his coronation without the formal approval of the state authorities. The ceremony took place in the presence of hundreds of church representatives from Greece, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Cyprus and Albania. All the patriarchs of Jerusalem attended, as did diplomats.

Only a representative of the government of Israel was missing. "Without approval by the Israeli government, Irineos is not the patriarch," a senior Israeli official said at the time.

Installed, Irineos discovered that without the government's approval, his authority was limited. He can't do anything, for example, about church finances and patriarchate business, because his signature is not recognized as the official signature. Irineos replaced his predecessor's staff and other rivals inside church positions with his own people, just as a prime minister can name his new ministers, church spokesmen explained at the time. They managed to get loans in Greece that more or less enabled the patriarch's institutions in Israel to function. But as far as the Israeli government was concerned, Metropolitan Cornelius, who had been acting patriarch after the death of Diodoros, was still in charge.

However, in April this year, Irineos thought things had finally been worked out. After lengthy contacts with various intermediaries he was invited to the Independence Day reception at the President's Residence. He was also invited to an event at the Prime Minister's Office, and Israeli envoys whispered into his ear that the government approval was on its way.

One of Irineos' inner circle says that a short while after the reception at the President's Residence, an Israeli official arrived at the Patriarch's offices with a letter. He asked the patriarch to sign it and send it to back to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, keeping the entire matter secret. The letter was a commitment to transfer ownership of church property already used by the Israeli government to the government.

`I never signed that letter'

Did the Israeli government try to extort property from the patriarchate in exchange for approving Irineos' election? Perhaps. The property is already in use by the government, though the official owner is the church. The patriarchate had negotiated in the past with Israeli representatives about transferring ownership to the government in exchange for a hefty sum, so as far as Israel was concerned, this was just a way to speed things up. Either way, Irineos did not sign the letter. The result: No approval of his election by the government.

A few more weeks went by and rumors about a letter spread through the church, with copies of it reaching the Greek foreign minister and the Metropolitan of Athens. But those copies carried a signature purported to be that of Irineos, promising Sharon that ownership of church property in Jerusalem would be transferred to the Israeli government.

Irineos vigorously and vehemently denies ever signing the letter. "An Israeli representative proposed that I sign it, but I did not," he says. The denials didn't help. The PA and the Arab press declared war on him. A young Arab clergyman from the Galilee, Atallah Hanna, has been interviewed on practically every Arab TV station in recent days, saying the patriarch plans to sell more church lands to Israel. Hanna also charges that Irineos is trying to enlist thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from Russia, who are mostly Orthodox, to weaken the influence of Arab Christians in the church.

Last week, Irineos filed a formal complaint with the Jerusalem police, saying, "the signature on the letter is a forgery. I did not sign that letter and did not allow anyone else to sign it nor to use the church stamp."

Irineos has many enemies in the Israeli and Palestinian business world, among politicians and in the church. Some invested in the election of another candidate, others backed Irineos but feel they were not adequately compensated for their efforts. The letter has complicated matters even further.

Now, if the government approves his election, everyone will say here's the proof that Irineos, who was considered pro-Arab, has become a turncoat and is ready to serve Israel. But if the government doesn't approve his election, it will be very difficult for him to fulfill his role and keep the patriarchate functioning properly.