Church sacks patriarch
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem is finally pushed out, but Palestinians insist the crisis is not over yet, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
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Arab Christian demonstrators stand around a broken picture of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos
After weeks of protest, the Christian Arab community in Jerusalem has apparently succeeded in getting the Greek Orthodox Church to sack its patriarch, Irineos I, over his alleged involvement in the sale of church property in East Jerusalem to Jewish settlers earlier this year. Irineos is widely believed to have okayed the sale of several buildings and a hotel in Jerusalem's old city, in concert with Nikos Papadimas, a Greek aide, who fled Palestine to an unknown destination with millions of dollars.
Irineos, for his part, has insisted that he had no knowledge of the illicit deal, promising to restore, if possible, the sold real estate. Orthodox leaders in Palestine, clergy and laity alike, refused to believe him, arguing that it would be a calamity if he knew of the deal and even a greater calamity if he didn't.
The crisis reached a climax on Friday 6 May, when the orthodox community's religious council, or synod, decided by a two-third majority to dismiss Irineos and cease all contact with him. "Irineos has been driven by a spirit of falsehood, misunderstanding the meaning of the church and irresponsibly handling the property of the patriarchate," read a statement issued by the synod. Explaining the decision to sack him, the statement continued that Irineos "put in danger our rights and our presence in the Holy Places".
Irineos, meanwhile, refused to accede to the decision, accusing the synod of acting illegally and in contravention to clerical norms. He even sought unsuccessfully to convene a meeting of top clergymen for the purpose of sacking 18 members of the synod who voted to dismiss him.
Following the synod's decision, a meeting was hastily arranged between Irineos and his critics during which an acrimonious argument erupted between the two sides. In the meeting, the official spokesman of the church, Archimandrite Atallah Hanna, accused the patriarch of not telling the truth and of betraying the trust of the community. Irineos, feeling besieged, walked out of the patriarchate headquarters. During the night, he returned to the patriarchate under heavy Israeli police protection where he reportedly began packing his belongings.
Some of the leaders of the Palestinian Orthodox community demanded that Irineos be put on trial before a church court. "He must not be allowed to leave until he has been investigated and tried before a church court," said Dimitri Diliani, an orthodox community leader. "This is an important move but the battle is not yet over, the fight will continue until we recover the real estates and buildings that were sold," he said.
Developments in the Jerusalem patriarchate seem to have prompted Patriarch of Istanbul Portholomeos I to give at least tacit consent to the sacking of Irineos. According to Archimandrite Hanna, Portholomeos I sent a telegram to Irineos in which he didn't address him as "patriarch". Portholomeos I, the spiritual head of some 250 million Orthodox believers around the world, also asked Irineos to de-escalate the situation and visit him in Istanbul.
Irineos protested against the letter, arguing that Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were still recognising him as the legitimate patriarch. Signs are, however, that Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have been simply waiting for the crisis to fully unravel before officially withdrawing recognition of Irineos.
Meanwhile, Irineos's financial manager, Papadimas, who signed the deal with Jewish settler investors, has been quoted as saying that the patriarch sold the buildings in Jerusalem in order to gain Israel's approval. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Friday quoted Papadimas as saying that Irineos wanted "to prove to Israel that he didn't support the Palestinian cause".
The sacking of the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem is expected to bolster a trend towards the "Arabisation" of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. Orthodox leaders, both religious and secular, have long been demanding an end to centuries of Greek "guardianship, tutelage". Such demands have always been rejected, ostensibly because the Greek Church didn't want to lose a foothold in the Holy Land without which it would lose much of its stature and symbolism. The situation has changed now.
Some Orthodox leaders, indeed, are arguing that the church systematically exploits the community rather than serving it, an allusion to alleged mishandling of the vast church holdings in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Ramallah, with revenues amounting to millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Israel is vehemently against the "Arabisation" of the Orthodox Church, fearing that such a step would ally the Orthodox Church in Palestine with the Palestinian national movement.
As the controversy has played out, most Palestinians have been monitoring with admiration the successful struggle of the Palestinian orthodox community against Irineos and his perceived treachery of the Palestinian national cause. Irineos is perceived by most Palestinians as having betrayed not only the orthodox community but also Palestinian national interests in Jerusalem, the capital of an envisaged Palestinian state.
Admiration for those who pushed for his removal is expected to further cement Palestinian national unity and the Christian-Muslim Brotherhood in the face of Israel that misses no opportunity to implant seeds of division between Muslims and Christians, often via misinformation and rumour. Moreover, the sacking of Irineos will make it more difficult for the new church leadership to illicitly sell church property to Jewish groups.
Whether Irineos's ignominious dismissal will lead to the recovery of property sold is less likely.