The High Court of Justice has given the state 30 days to respond to a petition filed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, demanding that the government immediately recognize his election to the post by the Pan-Orthodox Synod in Istanbul on August 22.
So far, Israel has refused to recognize Theophilos as the new Greek Orthodox Patriarch. In his petition, the Patriarch, who is represented by attorney Rami Moghrabi, charged that the government has made recognition conditional on a public acknowledgment of real estate deals involving four properties in Jerusalem's Old City that were allegedly made by his predecessor, Irineos I.
The Synod deposed Irineos three months earlier, after he angered its members for agreeing to hand over church-owned land to local Greek Orthodox communities in several Israeli Arab villages.
According to the petition, the deals involve four properties located near Jaffa Gate, which Irineos allegedly leased "for generations" to a Virgin Islands-based company which is apparently a front for the Israeli organization, Ateret Cohanim.
Ateret Cohanim operates a yeshiva in the Old City's Moslem Quarter, works to settle Jews in Arab parts of Jerusalem and aspires to build the Third Temple.
The properties leased by the foreign company included the Imperial Hotel (in return for $1.25 million), the St. John Hospice ($400,000), the Petra Hotel ($500,000), and a plot of land known as Muazimiyeh ($55,000).
"The prices agreed upon in these deals are more suitable for stolen property than properties sold at market price by a seller wishing to sell to a buyer wishing to buy," wrote Theopolis' lawyer, Moghrabi.
Theophilos wrote that the transactions were null and void. He said Irineos himself had retracted his agreement, claiming that they had been made by an aide without his knowledge, and furthermore, the Holy Synod had not approved them.
He also argued that there was no connection between the alleged transactions and his recognition by the government as the Patriarch of Jerusalem. "This demand is unfair, not in good faithâ€¦and is meant to illegally twist the arm of the Patriarchate," wrote Moghrabi.
"Why would the government withhold recognition from a Patriarch elected in such difficult circumstances as leverage in a dispute which is entirely in the private realm between the Patriarchate and a private body and whose resolution is to be found in the area of private law."