Panel recommends government recognize Theophilos III

Move comes two years after the church first appointed Theophilos to the top church position in Israel, a move Israel never recognized.

patriarch theophilos aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
patriarch theophilos aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After a two-year delay, a ministerial committee has recommended that the government recognize Theophilos III as Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch, officials said Monday. The decision was made late Sunday following intense international pressure. It came two years after the church first appointed Theophilos to the top church position in Israel, a move Israel never recognized. The decision also came less than a month before the High Court of Justice was expected to rule on a petition filed by Theophilos to instruct the government to recognize his election. The committee's recommendation, which is expected to be approved by the government in the next few weeks, is especially significant because of the church's extensive property holdings in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. By church law dating back to Ottoman rule, any new patriarch must be approved by all the governments in the region - Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. The appointment of the new patriarch had been approved by the Palestinians and by Jordan but held up by Israel. Israel had previously backed the ousted former patriarch Irineos I, who was forced out of office following a controversial Jerusalem land sale. "This is a necessary and fitting move," Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan said. He said he had reached a decision on the extremely sensitive issue after "dozens" of meetings on the subject since he was appointed to head the ministerial committee three months ago. The vote in the ministerial panel was three to one, with Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann joining Eitan in favor of recognizing Theophilos, and Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen opposing the move. The long-awaited ministerial committee decision was immediately welcomed by Theophilos. "We greet this decision with high appreciation," he told The Jerusalem Post Monday. "I hope this decision will sort out all sorts of misunderstandings in the past," he added. Theophilos did not commit in writing to any obligations toward Israeli officials regarding land property, although he did make assurances to the committee regarding his position, Israeli officials said. "Everything will be done in the most appropriate and lawful way," he said. The decision was met with disappointment by opponents of Theophilos within the church. "I am astonished by the move because, until yesterday, the Israeli government had been saying that Theophilos acted according to his own will," said Father Irineos, a supporter of Irineos I, who served as chairman of the church's finance department. "The stability of the church becomes endangered if the church becomes immersed in politics," he said, using the same argument that opponents of Irineos I had used against him in the past. 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 I, with Israel's support, has refused to accept his dismissal, saying a former aide signed the leases without his knowledge. The aide, who is wanted by Interpol on suspicion he embezzled millions of dollars from the Patriarchate's coffers, has fled the country and remains at large. He is believed to be in South America. The PA and Jordan had recognized Irineos's dismissal, and Theophilos's election but, until now, Israel has not. Reports of the Jerusalem property sale to Jews had aroused the furor of the Palestinians, who make up most of the 100,000 Greek Orthodox in the country. The properties allegedly sold include the Imperial and Petra hotels inside the Jaffa Gate. The land deal remains shrouded in mystery.