(photo credit: AP [file])
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.
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, 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.
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.
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