Israel Freezes New Recognition of Jerusalem Patriarch

The latest development in the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem saga, from the Jerusalem Post:

In a new legal twist, the High Court of Justice on Wednesday froze Israeli recognition of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, reopening a bitter international dispute that has roiled the church.

The Israeli government chose to recognise Theophilos patriarch a couple of days ago, two years after the ousting of his predecessor, the decidedly inaptly-named Irineos. Despite losing the confidence of both his flock and his fellow Orthodox Church leaders, Irineos believes that with Israel’s backing he can reclaim his position, and he has now launched a new legal challenge.

Irineos’s troubles, as I have blogged at length, stem from the sale of church-owned land in east Jerusalem to a front-group for Israeli settlers. Naturally this rather annoyed and embarrassed Palestinian Orthodox Christians, who are generally fed up with Greek leadership anyway. Irineos claimed that the deal had been made without his knowledge by his treasurer, Nicholas Papadimas, who is now reportedly in hiding in South America. Theophilos agreed to cancel the sale (although prevarication led to temporary de-recognition by Jordan in May), which is one reason Israel prefers Irineos – there is also concern over future leaseholds on church-owned land in west Jerusalem, including on the site of the Knesset. However, Theophilos’s position was strengthened in October when Condoleezza Rice chose to meet him in Bethlehem.

One person particularly opposed to Theophilos is – as ever – Aaron Klein, WorldNetDaily’s Jerusalem correspondent. Klein invariably describes Theophilos as the “‘no-land-to-Jews’ cleric”, and he claims that Theophilos is motivated by prejudice against Jews, rather than fear of creeping Israeli hegemony over east Jerusalem (it should be noted that Klein’s righteous anger over “no-land-to-Jews” does not prevent him complaining about “Arabs…illegally occupy[ing] strategic land purchased for Jews” in locations controlled by the Jewish National Fund). The temporary recognition given to Theophilos by Israel a couple of days ago was grist for his campaign against the Olmert government, which he regularly trashes on behalf of the extremely right-wing Israeli fringe groups he continually puffs. However, he does give us one interesting quote, from Bishop Atallah Hanna:

“The deal must be canceled and Theofilos knows this. We as a church will fight any smuggling of real estate to Jewish organizations,” Atallah Hanna, the church’s archbishop of Sebastia, told WND.

Hanna is a particularly slippery figure: he insists that reports in sympathetic Arab newspapers quoting him as supporting suicide bombers were fabricated, and he is opposed to Irineos for reasons of his own. In May 2005 he claimed not to be against a land-deal per se:

“The Israelis may not have understood us. The problem is not the sale of lands to Jews, but rather the lack of proper management and transparency, and fraud.”

Another group backing Theophilos over Irineos is the Roman Catholic Church. Asia News reminds us bitterly that Irineos

…is infamous for having urged his followers to engage in open combat against the friars of the Holy Sepulchre and for having continually sought to create difficulties regarding the upkeep of sacred sights jointly owned with Catholics.

Irineos doesn’t care much for Jews, either, and he is on record as feeling “disgust and disrespect…for the descendants of the crucifiers”. For some reason, such a view didn’t prevent him enjoying Israel’s backing until earlier this week, nor does it inhibit him from asking for Israel’s help now.

Name variations: Theofilos, Ireneos