News and events

Jerusalem ( 14.04.2006 )

Last year, Israeli police held back Palestinians outraged by alleged deals to lease Greek Orthodox properties to Jewish investors in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The upcoming ceremony on April 22 — the eve of Orthodox Easter — has elements for even higher drama. The land scandal has splintered the Greek Orthodox, one of the caretakers of the Holy Sepulcher shrine.

Orthodox leaders last May ousted the Church’s Jerusalem-based patriarch, Irenaios I, after reports of deals for several prime buildings near Jaffa Gate. The Church’s mostly Palestinian Christian congregation denounced it as another attempt to weaken the Arab presence in east Jerusalem.

Irenaios, however, has not gone quietly. He has refused to recognize his dismissal and still commands a band of loyalists. Israel, too, has not given its formal backing to the new patriarch, Theophilos III, who says he opposes the reported leases.

Traditionally, the Greek patriarch needs three-way approval that includes Jordan and the Palestinians, which have given the nod to Theophilos. The Patriarchate dispute is now before Israel’s Supreme Court.

In Greece, meanwhile, investigators are digging deeper into a possible espionage affair involving Irenaios’s selection as patriarch in 2001. The probe centers on whether a convicted drug trafficker, Apostolos Vavilis, was sent on secret missions to lobby for Irenaios, who was the choice of Greek officials and clerics at the time. Vavilis — whose aliases included Apostolo Pavlos, or Apostle Paul — was extradited from Italy on April 6 to face charges including “revealing state secrets” to foreign agents. He was returned to Greece wearing the black robes of an Orthodox priest, although he is not ordained.

The official who allegedly negotiated the leases, church financial officer Nikos Papadimas, remains a fugitive. It’s possible Irenaios could attempt to directly challenge Theophilos’s authority at the flame ceremony, but that would constitute an almost irreparable rupture in the Church.

More likely is a noisy showdown of taunts and name-calling between the rival groups. Israeli security was heightened last year because of showdowns.

Archbishop Aristarchos, who handles security for the Patriarchate, said there are “rumors” Irenaios could make an appearance but “there is no way that the previous patriarch will come to the ceremony as the patriarch.”

“Only Theophilos III will come to the ceremony as the patriarch,” Aristarchos said. “I hope and I wish that there will not be any unpleasant episodes.”

Source: the Greek daily Kathimerini