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The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III attends a Christmas service according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, in the church of Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem..(Photo by: REUTERS)
Christian leaders to Abbas: ‘Don’t engage churches in political quarrels’
Christians jostle with Mahmoud Abbas for control over their affairs.
A recent decision by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to appoint a new Supreme Presidential Committee for Churches’ Affairs has angered Christian leaders in Jerusalem, who said the move was taken without consultation and coordination with them.

A group named the Council of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem called for a meeting of its members to discuss the appointment, which they described as a “clear infringement on the role and status of the churches.” The group called on Abbas to “maintain the status quo and not to engage the churches in political quarrels.”

The group said that several of the church leaders in Jerusalem expressed their dismay for hearing about Abbas’s decision from various newspapers and media outlets.

“There is a general dissatisfaction with the low level of membership representation in the new committee compared to the previous committee,” the council said. “The previous committee included members of the PLO Executive Committee and [PA] government ministers, while the new committee includes representatives of ministries and a representation of an entity with legal and political controversies, which will negatively affect the performance of the committee.”

Abbas announced the names of the new members of the Supreme Presidential Committee for Churches’ Affairs in a “presidential decree” he issued on February 14.

The new committee is headed by Ramzi Khoury, who previously served as director of the office of former PA President Yasser Arafat. Khoury currently serves as General Director of the Palestine National Fund, a PLO organization responsible for managing financial aid to the Palestinians from various sources, including Arab states, donations from wealthy Palestinians and taxes levied on Palestinians working in Arab countries.

The new committee includes representatives of the PA president’s office and the ministries of foreign affairs and tourism, as well as the PA “Governor of Jerusalem” and the mayors of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Bet Jala.

In addition, the new committee appointed by Abbas includes the chairman of the Central Orthodox Council in Jordan and Palestine, the PA representative to the Vatican and a representative of the Union of Churches Association in the Gaza Strip.

The Central Orthodox Council in Jordan and Palestine is strongly opposed to the activities of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, headed by Theophilos III, especially with regards to the sale or lease of church-owned properties to Israelis.

Theophilos III has been facing sharp criticism from Arab Christians for his alleged role in selling and leasing the properties. In recent years, Palestinians have been protesting against the arrival of Theophilos III to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. Last month, scores of protesters shouted “traitor” at him during Christmas celebrations in the city and demanded that he leave.

Theophilos III and other church leaders in Jerusalem see Abbas’s decision to appoint the new committee in the context of attempts to undermine their status as leaders of the Christian communities in the Holy Land.

They pointed out that the members of the new committee “do not represent the rich fabric of the Christian communities in Palestine, which includes 13 recognized denominations.” They also expressed “serious doubts” about the ability of the new members to carry out their tasks in a fair manner.

The Council of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem also criticized Abbas for failing to include a Christian leader from Jerusalem in the new committee. The council complained that many of the new appointees are named by position or by the ministry they represent, and not their names, “which makes the committee’s membership vague to a large extent.”

Theophilos III had been quoted as saying that the number of Christians in the Holy Land is decreasing, “and in order to amend this reality, there is a need for mutual transparency, cooperation and consultancy between the official authorities and the churches to preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

In response, the Central Orthodox Council rejected the allegations and said that Abbas was authorized to appoint new members to the Supreme Presidential Committee for Churches’ Affairs. The council also accused Theophilos III and his followers of employing an “arrogant tone” in their criticism of Abbas’s decision and said that the new committee’s goal was to maintain the status quo to “safeguard the relationship between the 13 Christian denominations and the Christians present in the Holy Land.”

A PA official dismissed the criticism and said that Abbas made his decision to appoint the new committee members after consulting with several leaders of the Christian communities.

Jawad Boulos, a prominent lawyer from east Jerusalem, defended Abbas’s move. He said that the heads of the Greek Orthodox Church were opposed to the appointment of the new committee because of reports concerning their involvement in the sale and lease of church-owned properties. Abbas’s decision, Boulos explained, was aimed at “correcting the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the Arab Christians.”
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