Theofilos III 88.
(photo credit: )
More than two years after he was sworn in as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Theofilos III on Sunday finally won the approval of the Israeli government, putting an end to a lengthy international saga with religious, political and financial elements.
Theofilos took office under unusual circumstances. His predecessor, Irineos I, was ousted in May 2005 after allegations that he leased church land in east Jerusalem to Jewish groups interested in expanding their presence in the Arab section. The long-term leases enraged the church's predominantly Palestinian flock. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Theofilos petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to get the state to recognize him, since under church rules he must be approved by all governments in the areas where his flock lives - Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The latter two immediately approved, but Israel deferred, awaiting word from a committee it established to examine the appointment.
Over the past two years, Israel neither recognized the naming of Theofilos, nor the removal of Irineos, who still resides in the same Jerusalem Old City compound as his replacement while openly challenging his authority. Irineos never officially resigned and continued to enjoy the support of Israel - who invited him to official events and provided him with police protection.
On Sunday, the government finally approved Theofilos by a vote of 10 to 3. The opponents all belonged to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, who raised reservations about Theofilos' reported commitment to blocking any future sale of lands to Jews.
Theofilos, 55, has said he will not recognize any land deals signed by Irineos. He has accused Israel of not recognizing him in an effort to extort his support for the lease of the property, which includes two hotels and several shops.
Sunday's vote seemed to put an end to the latest drama.
"This is a patriarch who has to maneuver between three political entities - Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians - as well as between the Church hierarchy, which is Greek, and the laity, which is Arab," said Daniel Rossing, head of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. "Every day you survive is an accomplishment. It's like playing chess in six dimensions."
Property dealings are highly sensitive to the Greek Orthodox Church, which is one of the major land owners in Israel and the Palestinian territories, giving it influence far beyond its 90,000-member flock. The church's high-profile holdings include historic buildings in Jerusalem's Old City, prime real estate in Jerusalem and the site of some Israeli government buildings.
The leasing sparked an open mutiny against Irineos by followers and rebel clerics. World Greek Orthodox leaders stopped recognizing his authority, and a church tribunal in Jerusalem defrocked him and demoted him to the rank of monk.
Irineos was implicated in deals selling Old City properties to Ateret Cohanim, a group that champions Jewish settlement of mostly Arab sections of east Jerusalem. He denied he was involved in the sale but refused to cancel it.
Irineos' 2004 appointment to the post of Patriarch was also controversial. Israel approved him after a two-year delay, accusing him of being too sympathetic to the Palestinians. A year earlier, Irineos accused a senior priest and rival of hiring a Palestinian hit squad to assassinate him.
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