WCC slams Israel's refusal to recognize Greek patriarch

Calls Israel's continued support for predecessor "tantamount to interference by the state in the affairs of the church."

patriarch theophilos aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
patriarch theophilos aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva has demanded Israel withdraw its backing of Irineos I and acknowledge Theophilos III as the leader of the Greek Orthodox church in Jerusalem. Israel's continued support for the "duly deposed former patriarch, now monk, Irineos," was "tantamount to interference by the state in the affairs of the church," WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia wrote in a September 29 letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The leader of the ecumenical organization called for "remedial action at the long delay by the government in recognizing... Theophilos III as the head of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem." It is the Greek Orthodox "Holy Synod, not the government of Israel, which determines who is the legitimate leader of that church" Kobia said. Elected patriarch in 2001 with the backing of the Greek government and church officials, Irineos fell afoul of the bishops of the Jerusalem church last year after it was revealed the patriarchate gave a 198 year lease at below market prices on commercial properties near Jaffa Gate to four British Virgin Island holding companies controlled by a Jewish settlement group. Israel's failure to recognize Theophilos has been "near catastrophic," Patrick Theros, former US ambassador to Qatar and the patriarchate's representative to the US, told a meeting of the American Hellenic Institute in Washington. Without a letter of recognition from the government, many banks, commercial firms, land registry and other state agencies have refused to deal with Theophilos in his capacity of legal representative of the church. "It got to a point where the patriarchate's electricity was shut down." The church could not pay the staff of its 40 schools, nor maintain its 400 churches without emergency assistance from the Greek government Theros said. The leases were corruptly obtained, he claimed. "Checks in full were written out to cash for each of the four leases, but the patriarchate never received any of these funds." A Greek prosecutor last year issued a European arrest warrant against Nikos Papadimas, the patriarchate's former financial manager who allegedly negotiated the leases, on charges of embezzling some 600,000 euros, the Athens newspaper Ekathimerini reported. After Irineos refused to heed the instructions of a special meeting in Istanbul of the leaders of the Orthodox churches to step down over the scandal, the Jerusalem Patriarchate's Holy Synod deposed him from office - an action Irineos disputes was illegal under church law. He has refused to recognize his dismissal and still commands the support of the Israeli government, while the Orthodox Christian world recognizes Theophilos as the lawful patriarch. On October 26, Theophilos filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. Under the terms of an Ottoman era treaty, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel must give a "Berat," or official edict of approval to the patriarch's election. While Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have given their Berat, Israel has not. The petition charged the government was seeking to manipulate the church, making recognition of Theophilos' election contingent upon his approval of the land deal. A hearing was scheduled before the Supreme Court on July 19, and a decision is pending. In an interview with the English-language Athens News after his election, Theophilos stated he would not honor the leases and faulted his predecessor for launching the church into perilous political waters. "Through Irineos' imprudent actions, the patriarchate appeared to be involved in a political conflict [over land], when it had never been involved in political disputes historically. The church was transformed from a spiritual institution into a vehicle for promoting political agendas. I think my election largely managed to bring the church out of the political conflict, even though the interested powers tried their best to drag us into it," he stated. The WCC's call for Israel to recognize Theophilos follows last month's release of a US State Department report criticizing Israel's interference in the governance of the 40,000 member patriarchate. The 2006 International Religious Freedom Report criticized Israel's "unequal treatment of religious minorities" and singled out the dispute as an example of "societal abuses and discrimination" in the Israel country report published in its world-wide survey of religious freedom.