Greece Calls for Israel to Recognise Jerusalem Patriarch

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem saga rumbles on. From Religious Intelligence:

Theophilos III…was appointed to the position two years ago after his predecessor was forced out of office following a disputed land sale in the Old City of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem has refused to recognise the new Patriarch, prompting Athens to renew its call this week for recognition ahead of an Israeli High Court ruling later in the year.

I’ve blogged on this several times in the past (e.g. here); Theophilos’ predecessor, Irineos, was found to have sold church land in Palestinian East Jerusalem to a company representing Israeli settlers, and which may have been financed by the government. Naturally, this angered and embarrassed Palestinian Orthodox Christians, who for many years have been dissatisfied with the Greek hierarchy of the church. Irineos blamed his treasurer, but was forced out of his position. Israel, however, continues to recognise Irineos (whom it originally opposed) rather than Theophilos, despite Irineos’s quoted “disgust and disrespect” for “the descendants of the crucifiers of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This is because Theophilos refused to endorse the land deal, and may be the source of future difficulties:

there are suspicions that Israel’s stand-off is motivated by concerns that the new Patriarch might refuse to extend the current long-term lease of land that includes the area housing the Israeli Parliament building, the Knesset.

The Greek government denies that Theophilos would do this (and notes that this is fifty years off), and in February it was announced that he was willing to sell church land in Israeli West Jerusalem. Haaretz reported in February that:

According to various reports, Theophilus promised both the Jordanians and the Palestinians that he would not sell additional properties in Jerusalem to Jews and that he would not authorize the hotels deal. That is why Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have recognized him as patriarch. However, Theophilus’ aides say that he is actually a “Zionist” and a great believer in Israel. As proof they cite the fact that he is about to conclude the sale of the properties of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, and next to the old railway station in the city, to the Jewish National Fund and to Israeli companies. Another double knot: Theophilus, who was elected on a platform of opposition to selling properties to Jews, is actually an ardent supporter of the sale of properties to Israeli bodies.

This “double-knot” in fact led to his de-recognition by Jordan in May. The AP reported:

Last month, Jordan withdrew its recognition of Theophilos III, head of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church, saying he failed to act on the controversial east Jerusalem land deal with Israel concluded by his predecessor, Irineos I.

A piece on Spero News reports Theophilos’s perspective on that:

In an exclusive interview with the Athens News, Patriarch Theophilos charges that private financial interests are behind the Jordanian cabinet’s May 12 decision to revoke his recognition, which must be approved by King Abdallah.

…Theophilos insists that representatives of about 70 Arab Orthodox communities who demanded the patriarch’s recognition be revoked are in fact a non-representative group mainly from Nazareth, pursuing their own economic interests. One bishop told the Athens News that the same people for many years have been suing the patriarchate to gain control of parts of the church’s vast landholdings.

…The daily To Vima reported on May 15 that King Abdallah’s cousin, Prince Gazi bin Muhammad, has been pressuring Theophilos to hand over a large land tract for commercial development near the Jordan River, where pilgrims flock to be baptised. Confirming this, church sources told the Athens News that the prince is also pressuring Theophilos to elevate Arab Orthodox Archimandrite priest Christophoros to bishop.

Theophilos also responded with a letter to the Prime Minister of Jordan, as was reported by the AP:

[Spokesman Nasser] Judeh said Theophilos’s letters to Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit included an assurance to the Jordanians that no land or illegal land sales had taken place and the patriarch’s adherence to the Greek Patriarchate Law of 1958.

The law bans the sale of any church land or property in Jerusalem, which Jordan ruled along with the West Bank until Israel seized the territories during the 1967 Middle East War.

Jordan decided to rescind the de-recognition last month:

“The decision was taken after the government was assured that the Patriarch had met the obligations he pledged to the government when he assumed his post in 2005,” Government Spokesman Nasser Judeh told reporters following the cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post offers a clue concerning one of the affair’s loose ends – the whereabouts of Nicholas Papadimas, the mysterious treasurer who made the land deal that brought down Irineos:

The aide, who has fled the country and is wanted by Interpol on an international warrant amid allegations that he usurped millions of dollars from the patriarchate’s coffers, remains at large. He is thought to be in South America.

Another shady figure alleged to have been involved with Irineos is Apostolos Vavilis, a former drug-dealer who was arrested on espionage charges in 2006 after fleeing from Greece to Italy via Thailand “with the help of his Taiwanese friends”. Vavilis, who has an Israeli ex-wife, had reportedly assisted with the original election of Irineos, and he was seen in Jerusalem in 2001 in the company of a monk named Nikodimos Farmakis, who lost his position as Archimandrite after he was found to have been carrying a gun; Farmakis represented Irineos at the 2002 Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi. Vavilis was also implicated various other scandals that engulfed the Greek Orthodox Church in 2005. There’s nothing more about him in the English-language press since then, at least that I could find.

4 Responses

  1. […] (Klein’s distorted reporting is subject which I have chronicled on numerous occasions, most recently here; Terry Krepel at Conwebwatch has also produced several in-depth essays. I have also kept an eye on the Greek Orthodox leasing scandal, which still has numerous loose ends. See here) […]

  2. […] is a story I’ve been following for some time; as I noted a few months ago, Vavilis was arrested on espionage charges in 2006 after fleeing from Greece to Italy via […]

  3. […] East Jerusalem was leased to an Israeli settler group (I’ve blogged on this at some length, e.g here) – the deal was annulled by Theophilos. As well as this, Palestinian Christians have been […]

  4. […] not been heard of since. Theophilos initially agreed to cancel the sale, which meant that Israel continued to back Irenaeus; the Times notes that Irenaeus enjoyed 24-hour protection from the Israeli police, and […]

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