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Monday, July 15, 2002


Orthodox Trouble in the Holy Land

There is another conflict going on in and around Jerusalem, a sideshow to the main event, contested between Israelis and Palestinians. This one involves a simmering dispute between the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem and the government of Israel – or, perhaps more accurately, Ariel Sharon’s ruling coalition. The differences center around – what else? – a struggle for political power and land, cloaked in age-old religious and historical disputes. No quarrel seems to be very far from the “your-land-is-my-land” type of argument in this particular part of the Middle East.

Technically, the dispute is indeed rooted in the past, but less so in ancient ethnic hatreds and more in antiquated laws nobody bothered to change. The early institutional history of Christianity in Palestine dates from 52 CE but the status of the patriarchate was conferred on the Church in Jerusalem in 451 CE during the Byzantine era. In the sixth century, Justinian, an emperor with a tight grip on the reigns of power, mandated that the authorities had the right to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of patriarch. This practice, sustained under the intervening era of Ottoman rule, continues.

Presently, however, the system is not as easy as it sounds. Within the Church, there has been for many years a continually growing division between an Arab-speaking rank and file and a Greek-speaking leadership that re-elects itself to power. Added to this is the complicated current status of Jerusalem, which means that three secular authorities preside over the patriarchal elections: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. The first time this triple-approval system was tested, it broke down.

A search for a new patriarch began with Patriarch Diodoros’ death at age 77 in December 2000. Diodoros’ tenure had entailed a great deal of controversy from the time of his enthronement in 1981. He was said to have tried to extend his authority to North America and Australia. Israeli authorities accused him of trying to smuggle arms from Jordan into Israel and, in 1998, Palestinians accused him of allowing land that they had donated to the Church to be sold to Israeli developers – and then pocketing a slice of the profits. Diodoros claimed his signature was forged and that he did not receive any money. A police investigation continues.

Hopes of peace and quiet in the wake of Diodoros’ death were frustrated when it turned out that Israel’s government had originally not approved his candidature. In any case, the patriarchate sent a list of 15 candidates to succeed him to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority before holding elections. The Jordanians and the Palestinians approved the list, but the Sharon government scratched out five names. One of them was that of Metropolitan Eirineos. After the candidates petitioned the Israel High Court of Justice, however, the government reconsidered and approved the entire list.

The voting began with the 50 members of the Greek Orthodox Synod choosing three final candidates out of the original 15 nominees: Metropolitan Timothy, the patriarchate’s secretary; Metropolitan Cornelios, his deputy; and Eirineos. The next step was for the 17 members of the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulcher, the higher clergy, to vote. Unlike the Vatican, there are no smoke signals involved in the election of the patriarch of Jerusalem, although, like the election in Rome, this is an all-male affair. Instead, the 17 electors gather in the Greek Orthodox Catholicon of the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher opposite what is supposed to be the tomb of Jesus. As they cast their votes, according to The Jerusalem Post, “monks and priests, peering around the iconostasis behind which the balloting took place, shouted out the count to the crowd waiting in the main part of the church as the ballots were counted.”

It was close, with Eirineos receiving seven of 17 votes and his two opponents receiving five votes each, but at least the crowd in the church cheered upon hearing the result. There was less joy within Israel’s cabinet, even though Yonatan Ben-Ari, head of the religious affairs ministry’s department for Christian communities, attended the election, congratulated the winner, and said afterward that he hoped Eirineos would not bear a grudge against Israel’s government for taking his name off the candidates’ list. While Jordan and the Palestinian Authority swiftly rubber-stamped Eirineos’ appointment, Israel delayed in responding to the patriarchate’s formal request for approval.

Israel’s lack of enthusiasm over Eirineos’ election is because it considers him too closely associated with Greece and too pro-Palestinian. Eirineos moved from Greece to Jerusalem at the age of 15 in 1954 and remained there until 1979, when he went to Athens as the Jerusalem church’s representative in Greece. He returned to Jerusalem in early 2001, shortly after Diodoros’ death. If this were not enough for Israel to speculate that Eirineos was too closely associated with Greek interests, the confirmation came at Diodoros’ funeral, in late December 2000. Speaking during the funeral orations, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoris Niotis, representing the Greek government, said that Greece would follow the elections for a new patriarch with interest and urged the Jerusalem clergy to choose someone who would continue the patriarchate’s traditions “with burning zeal for its Greek Orthodox character.”

The deputy minister was obviously unaware that the Jerusalem patriarchate may be historically “Greek” and controlled by Greek-language clergy, but the largest of the several constituencies that make up its flock has been Arab-speaking for decades. The second part of Niotis’s faux pas had to do with his verbal interference in the affairs of another sovereign country (or, perhaps more accurately, three competing sovereign authorities, none of which is Greek). One wonders how the Greek state would react if someone from Ankara spoke in similar terms about the Muslim leadership in Greece?

The pro-Palestinian charges also seem speculative. In response to those accusations, Eirineos told The Jerusalem Post that he was neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israel, but only “pro-God.” Interfaith activist Rabbi David Rosen explains his government’s negative attitude simply as a belief that Eirineos would have been less willing than the other nominees “to kowtow to Israeli interests.” The issue of potential manipulation is a clue to what is really going on. The problem is not Eirineos’ attitude toward Greece, Israel, or Palestine, but his attitude toward real estate. The patriarchate has vast holdings of land, which make it one of the largest landlords in the country. This is not peculiar to this institution. Historically, Orthodox churches and monasteries were allowed to own land at a time when the Ottomans precluded even wealthy Christians from land-ownership. In an era of growing commerce, land-ownership proved a lucrative business.

What is special about the Jerusalem patriarchate’s holdings, however, is that they are in the Holy Lands. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the region’s dynamics knows that political claims rest on ownership of land. Early Jewish settlers bought up Arab lands as a prelude to claiming nationhood; as for the ideological significance of Israeli settlements in the West Bank following its occupation by Israel in 1967, it is self-evident. The land the Church owns is not limited to Christian holy places. It owns prime real estate in several parts of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Its holdings in Jerusalem include the property on which the education ministry, the Knesset, and the Supreme Court all sit, and the patriarchate leases land in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Several leases are coming up for renewal within the next few years.

Eirineos has announced that the patriarchate wishes to repossess as much of this land as possible, but not in a way that causes confrontation with Israel’s government. He states that all land negotiations will unfold in the open in order to avoid the types of accusations leveled against his predecessor. The Sharon government tried to meet Eirineos halfway, and announced its intention last April to extend formal recognition to the new patriarch. Sharon reckoned without his newest coalition partners, the ultra-nationalist National Union party, however. Uri Ariel, a Knesset member from that party, blocked Sharon’s move by accusing Eirineos of incitement to rebel, to murder, and to use terrorism.

Ariel made those accusations based on the pro-Palestinian statements of Atala Hanna, one of the more visible Arab-speaking members of the Orthodox church, who claimed he was its spokesman. The patriarchate responded that he was not its spokesman, however, explaining that he was a teacher at an Orthodox school who had also worked at the patriarchate’s offices. A source from within the patriarchate told The Jerusalem Post that Atala’s enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause exceeded the acceptable limits for a member of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher. Diodoros had apparently tolerated Atala’s behavior in the past so as not to alienate the large Palestinian lay element of the Church.

Ariel’s move, however, was a clever one. It reflected concern with what will happen to the patriarchate’s lands in the long term, when perhaps the Arab-speakers will finally unseat the Greek leadership. It would be supremely ironic if an Arab Christian church controlled the lease to the property on which the Israeli Knesset and Supreme Court sit. In case the Greeks cannot hang on to power, perhaps the best tactic is to put pressure on them to prove to Israel that they are not “terrorists,” and perhaps even to try and drive a wedge between the Greek leadership and its Arab-speaking flock. In the event, the struggle for land in the West Bank continues, and the Greek Orthodox patriarchate is in the middle of it.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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