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The Greek government is urging the State of Israel to immediately recognize Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch ahead of an Israeli High Court ruling on the appointment this fall, a senior Greek official said this weekend.
The remarks and the ongoing legal battle come nearly two years after the church first appointed Theophilos III to the top church position in the Holy Land in a move Israel never recognized, and less than five months before Israel's High Court of Justice is expected to rule on a petition filed by the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem to instruct the Israeli government to recognize his election.
The appointment of the new patriarch, whose election has been approved by the Palestinians and the Jordanians, has been held up by Israel, which still backs the ousted former patriarch Irineos I, who had been forced out of office following a controversial Jerusalem land sale.
"There is only one patriarch, and everything else is political games," Greek Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Theodore Kassimis said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Kassimis, who is charged with dealing with the patriarch on behalf of the Greek government, said he was confident that the State of Israel did not want the High Court of Justice ordering the government to recognize the patriarch, and opined that a governmental decision on the matter will be made this summer ahead of the expected November court ruling.
"It is not good to have a decision of the High Court confirming the patriarch," he said. "I am sure they do not want it."
An Israeli ministerial committee has also been established to deal with the issue. But amid political uncertainties following the inconclusive Lebanon war and bureaucratic delays, the committee has not yet made any decision. It was not clear whether the committee would decide on the issue ahead of the High Court or the court decision would come first, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said.
The newly appointed head of the government committee, MK Rafi Eitan, (Pensioners Party) was abroad Sunday and declined comment.
Irineos I was ousted two years ago amid allegations of leasing church property in Jerusalem's Old City to an Israeli company, in a move to further strengthen Jewish presence in the area.
But, with Israel's support, Irineos has refused to accept his dismissal, saying a former aide had signed the leases without his knowledge. The aide, who has fled the country and is wanted by Interpol on an international warrant amid allegations that he usurped millions of dollars from the patriarchate's coffers, remains at large. He is thought to be in South America.
By church law dating back to the Ottoman rule, any new patriarch must be approved by three governments in the area - in this case, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. The Palestinian Authority and Jordan have recognized Irineos's dismissal and Theophilos's election, but Israel has not.
"I am very sorry to see that the State of Israel did not accept the person that the church - according to church law - chose as the patriarch," Kassimis said.
He insisted that the Greek Orthodox patriarch does not want to interfere in any political brinkmanship between the various governments and parties in the region, adding that the religious leader "will not play" political games.
In the interview, the Greek deputy minister also pointedly played down concerns that the dispute and the patriarch's appointment could have ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the church's extensive property holdings throughout the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem.
"The patriarch will never refuse to extend the long-term lease - when the time comes in 50 years - allocated for the Knesset and other [Israeli] sites," Kassimis said.
"The patriarch is not a businessman; he will never say no," he added.
Reports of the east Jerusalem property sale to Jews have angered the Palestinians who make up most of the 100,000 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 Jerusalem's Old City. The actual land deal remains shrouded in mystery two years later.