Not all Greek to the Palestinians?

After weeks of controversy, Jerusalem Greek Patriarch Irenaios (various spellings) is apparently on the way out. From the BBC:

Greek Orthodox Church leaders in Jerusalem have broken off contact with their local leader, Patriarch Irineos, and say they regard him as dismissed.

The move stems from a dispute over the sale of church land in East Jerusalem, which has angered Palestinians.

…The land at the heart of the dispute was allegedly sold to a group linked to Jewish settlers, sparking outrage among Palestinians.

Given that Palestinian Christians already have to deal with Protestant Christian Zionists regularly roaming the streets of Jerusalem and proclaiming that Christianity teaches that Palestinian dispossession is part of God’s plan, this was pretty embarrassing. And it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened, either – in 1990 an Armenian businessmen sold his tenancy at a Greek Orthodox-owned hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City to Israeli settlers, leading to long legal dispute. And in 2001 Christianity Today noted that

Under the previous patriarch [Diodoros I], Israel bought and leased significant areas of land from the Greek Orthodox Church, including affluent neighborhoods of the city and the land which the official residences of the Israeli President and Prime Minister stand on.

Those lands were in Israel proper, so are perhaps less controversial – but it’s probably more than a bit off to be doing business with your own military occupier.

Back in March Athens News reported on the latest fiasco thus:

The revelation mobilised Palestinian and Jordanian Orthodox faithful against the patriarchate as never before.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) discussed the land sales at a special meeting on March 22 and pledged that it will “work through legal, political and religious means to Arabise the Orthodox Church and all other churches and will insist on their Arab features”. It also insisted that the Greek flag and any other foreign flags be removed from churches and shrines in the Holy Land and “that the Palestinian flag will be the only one raised on all churches”.

Palestinian MP, Hanan Ashrawi, also called for the Arab faithful to take control of the Orthodox patriarchate. That a politician of her stature had taken such an extreme position rang alarm bells in Greek diplomatic circles.

Greek diplomatic sources told the Athens News that such a move is legally and ecclesiologically impossible and that a move to Arabise the patriarchate would “destroy our house and theirs”.

Ashrawi herself is Anglican, and the local clergy in her church are already mostly Palestinian. The same is true of the Roman Catholic (“Latin”) church. But the call for an Arab-led Orthodoxy is actually a very old one. Here’s a quote from a paper that touches on the subject by anthropologist Glenn Bowman (who taught me when I was an undergrad):

One of the consequences of the pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox church’s attempts to extend its influence in Ottoman Palestine was that it systematically fomented dissatisfaction within Greek Orthodox Palestinian communities…Increased awareness of discrimination led to the lay creation of the Arab Orthodox Movement, an organization dedicated to wresting control of the church and its substantial properties from what it defined as a ‘foreign ‘ priesthood. After the Russian church’s intervention was abruptly ended by the revolution, the Movement was strongly supported by the British mandate government…and, after British withdrawal in 1948, by the Jordanian government which then appropriated the West Bank and Jerusalem. After the Israeli government took control of the West Bank in 1967, the Israeli state came to work closely with the Greek church…in an attempt to subvert the Greek government’s opposition to the Israeli occupation. As a result, the Movement became in large part quiescent since the church-state alliance made it evident to many Arab Orthodox activists that any gains that might be made by the Christian Palestinians would only be made after the Israeli occupation was ended (interview with Arab Orthodox Movement member, Bethlehem, March 1987). Nonetheless, one of the outstanding legacies of the Movement is the awareness among Christian Palestinians that the interests of the hierarchy of the Orthodox church are foreign and antagonistic to their own.

But the weird thing is that Irenaios was originally blocked by Israel, which feared he was too pro-Palestinian. As the same Christianity Today piece noted:

Under a law dating back to the sixth century emperor Justinian, the government of the Holy Land has the right to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of the patriarch.

The list of candidates was submitted to the governments of Israel and Jordan, as well as to the Palestinian Authority. While Jordan and the Palestinian Authority approved all nominees, Israel rejected five. Their objection was overturned by the Supreme Court of Israel.

…Israel was apparently wary of the Church coming under the rule of a pro-Palestinian patriarch; for fear that this could result in land disputes when long-term leases begin to expire.

So what happened? Irenaios blames his treasurer Nicholas Papadimas, who has disappeared; the Patriarch accuses him of making the deals without his knowledge. There’s also the murky role of Apostolos Vavilis, a drug dealer who is alleged to have unfairly influenced Irenaios’ 2001 election in some mysterious way.

We also need to keep in mind Atallah Hanna, a Palestinian Orthodox cleric and long-time enemy of Irenaios. Back in 2002 Reuters reported that

Father Hanna’s name has been put forward by Palestinian lay members of the Church who are lobbying to have the Greek leaders replaced with an Arab patriarch.

As an open supporter of the PLO, he initiated a power struggle with the Church to overthrow Patriarch Irineos, 63, who is of Greek origin and was enthroned last year.

This appears to have influenced the actions of the Patriarch, who was seen by Israel until recently as a supporter of the PLO and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Irineos has taken to making what many see as anti-Palestinian statements in order to appease the Israeli Government, which has yet to officially give its blessing to his appointment.

Around this time Hanna was already controversial, due in part to this quote made in Abu Dhabi and reported in the Gulf News:

Some freedom fighters adopt martyrdom or suicide bombing, while others opt for other measures. But all these struggles serve the continued intifada for freedom. Therefore, we support all these causes”.

In the ensuing media storm, the Patriarch condemned this sentiment and announced that Hanna was not an official spokesman for the church (a position that Hanna claims was his; some reports describe him as having been “fired”). However, in an interview in Haaretz (preserved for public access by Miftah) Hanna denied the accusations of pro-terrorist rhetoric:

What I said there is what I am saying now – I support the struggle of the Palestinian people against the occupation, until its independent state is established. A national struggle against occupation is a legitimate and permissible thing, and it is even the duty of a people under occupation. I spoke in Qatar about resistance, muqawama in Arabic, and not as my statements were represented in the media in Israel…I am against suicide bombings that harm civilians, and I am against the killing of any person, without differentiation for ethnic group or religion. In Christianity, human life is holy and of supreme value. But the main problem starts with the Israeli occupation, from which the Palestinian people are suffering. You have to understand that it – the occupation – is the main cause of violence.

Hanna claimed that the accusations were part of a “crusade” against him by people close to Irenaios. Hanna maintains a website where he still presents himself as the church’s spokesman (complete with a neutral-looking biog of the Patriarch). But in 2003 Islam Online reported (approvingly) some more quotes at odds with the moderate Haaretz interview:

“They [the “martyrs”] are not suicide bombers as some claim and they are not terrorists, rather, they resist occupation and we support martyrdom operations without any kind of reservations no matter what objectors and doubt-casters say about such a heroic kinds of resistance,” he said.

…In an exclusive interview with IslamOnline, Attallah asserted his support for the operations, averring that “if the struggle for freedom of peoples is regarded as terrorism, then I am a terrorist.”

Hanna called these statements “fabricated and untrue”, and even the virulently Christian Zionist International Christian Embassy withdrew the accusation, citing the unreliability of “Palestinian and Islamic media outlets”. But just why would such outlets want to portray Hanna as a terrorist supporter if he’s not? That’s murky in itself.

So, has Irenaios been set up? Or did he turn excessively pro-Israeli (an accusation carried in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, following Haaretz) because of Hanna or some other reason? Nobody knows for sure; but whatever the truth of it, it does look just possible that current events are leading towards the establishment, at long last, of a Palestinian Orthodox Church. One hopes that such a church would offer a robust alternative to Islamist terror within the context of Palestinian resistance; it would be depressing to see it instead competing with the basest delusions of Islamic fundamentalism.

(Some links via Christianity Today weblog)

UPDATE: More today.