Jerusalem affairs: Religiously political

Israel has finally confirmed the appointment of Theophilos III as the Greek Orthodox patriarch.

Theophilos III 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Theophilos III 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After a two-year legal and diplomatic saga, the government this week approved the appointment of Theophilos III as the new Greek Orthodox patriarch, capping a bitter feud which mixed religion and politics and a mysterious multimillion-dollar Jerusalem land sale. The much-anticipated decision followed months of feuding between Theophilos, 55, and his ousted predecessor, Irineos I, that has roiled the church - one of the major land owners in Israel and the Palestinian territories. But no sooner was the ink dry on the government's decision to confirm the appointment of Theophilos - following pressure from both the Greek and US governments - than the approval was frozen by the High Court of Justice, following a petition by Irineos, putting the whole issue back in the hands of the country's highest court. The dispute over who heads the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land carries special weight because of the church's extensive property holdings in Jerusalem, including the land on which the Knesset and the prime minister's official residence are located and an array of historic buildings in the Old City. This property, in a city where nearly every square meter of land is coveted, gives the church special influence as it tries to juggle the clashing interests of Israelis, Palestinians and its predominantly Arab flock. "Any patriarch will have to maneuver between conflicting forces, including several governments, the church hierarchy and a Palestinian Arab laity," said Daniel Rossing, head of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. "We need to appreciate that the patriarch will never put all his eggs in one basket, because he is playing a six-dimensional chess game." Irineos was forced out of office two years ago following a controversial Jerusalem land sale, but has refused to accept his ouster. During this time, he has remained in the same Old City compound as his replacement, while openly challenging the latter's authority. The appointment of Theophilos, whose election has been approved by the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanians, had until this week been held up by Israel, which had previously backed Irineos. THE GOVERNMENT decision on Sunday came nearly two months after a special ministerial committee, led by Minister for Pensioners Affairs Rafi Eitan, recommended such a move. Yet, just three days later, the decision was frozen by the court, pending its expected ruling next week. The government's confirmation came just as the High Court was set to rule on a petition Theophilos had filed to force the government to recognize him. Rossing said that the government should allow the churches to make their own decisions regarding leadership, just as Israel chooses its own religious leaders. "The government needs to accept the person who is elected and seek ways to work together," he said. The Greek government, which had repeatedly urged Israel to confirm the appointment of the new patriarch, warmly welcomed the long-awaited decision. "Through this wise decision, Israel shows that it respects the decision of the Patriarchate, which is a religious and not political institution," said Greek Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Theodore Kassimis. "No government should interfere in the internal matters of the Patriarchate, and everyone is obliged to respect the independence of such a religious institution." 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 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 amid allegations that he embezzled millions of dollars from the Patriarchate's coffers, is thought to be in South America. According to a church practice dating back to the Ottoman rule, any new patriarch must be approved by the ruling states, today Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. The PA and Jordan have recognized Irineos's dismissal, and Theophilos's election, but - until this week - Israel had not. Ironically, Israel previously held up the 2004 appointment of Irineos due to concerns at the time that he was too pro-Palestinian. Reports of the east Jerusalem property sale to Jews have aroused the furor of 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 two small hotels inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Three years later, the details of the sale still remain murky.