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Saturday, May 28, 2005


The Autumn of the Patriarchate

The long history of the Greek Orthodox Church in the eastern Mediterranean has involved an extensive catalogue of political machinations and financial wheeling and dealing. The four pillars of the Church in the region, the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople—first among equals—and those of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem have endured a series of political overlords that have included Arabs, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans, and their successor, secular, nationalist states. In dealing with all of these, the Orthodox Church has stayed true to its belief that a distinction must always be made between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, which is, in any case, a view of the world (and of the otherworld) arising out of the Byzantine system of government, which entailed a strong emperor ruling next to the patriarch. In the case of hostile political leaders, the business of defending the faith inevitably became enmeshed in politics and money very early on.

In his The Great Church in Captivity, the classic study of the ecumenical patriarchate, Steven Runciman acknowledged that the Church’s history under the Ottomans lacked any “heroic bravado” and that, in the conditions of captivity it endured, it often had to resort to intrigue and corruption in order to survive. The same applied to the so-called “Mother Church” in Jerusalem, established as a patriarchate in 451. It thrived under the Byzantines because the Holy Lands were the destination of Christian pilgrims, but the double blow of a Persian and then an Arab conquest in the seventh century ushered in a long era of difficulties and political compromise.

The fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099 made things even worse. The patriarch sought refuge in Constantinople while a Latin patriarchate was established in the city. The collapse of the Crusader kingdoms a century later meant the return of the Orthodox patriarch but also the beginning of renewed struggle over the proprietorship of the holy places. The disputes continued after the Ottomans took control of the city from the Egyptian Mamelukes, and eventually led, indirectly at least, to the Crimean Wars in the mid-nineteenth century. Greek Orthodox control of the Jerusalem patriarchate—confirmed by the Ottomans and continued under the British, who took over Jerusalem in 1917, and subsequently by the Jordanian and, after 1967, Israeli authorities—has always been hotly contested by the other churches.

The patriarchate is currently facing a novel crisis and, understandably, given its long history of difficulties, many observers believe it is caused by Patriarch Eirineos’s maladroit handling of the Church’s necessary maneuvering around political and economic interests. In March, an Israeli newspaper reported that the patriarchate, which owns extensive property in Jerusalem, had sold prime real estate in Eastern (Old) Jerusalem to some mysterious “Jewish investors.” This move, which has been subsequently verified, threatens the very delicate and ideologically loaded balance between Arab and Israeli property in that part of the city, which is considered Arab but is claimed by Israelis.

Following a Palestinian outcry, Eirineos’s flock turned against him. He had to rely on the protection of Israeli guards to perform Easter services. On Good Friday, angry worshippers forced him to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by a side entrance. A few days later, the patriarchate’s ruling body, the synod of bishops, declared Eirineos persona non grata and ousted him. In a recent extraordinary meeting called by the ecumenical patriarchate, all of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs also expressed their displeasure with Eirineos’s continuing refusal to step aside. Needless to say, the Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian authorities, along with the Greek government, have all joined the fray.

The sense that this is all Church politics as usual is strengthened by the patriarch’s own political history. Eirineos was elected the 140th patriarch of Jerusalem in August 2001, but the Israeli government withheld recognition, accusing him of being pro-Palestinian [see, “Orthodox Trouble in the Holy Land,” July 15, 2002]. Prior to being elected, Eirineos had served, since 1983, as a member of the patriarchate’s synod under Patriarch Diodoros, who himself was considered to be closely involved in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation over Jerusalem. The Israeli government did not officially recognize Eirineos as patriarch until March 2004, after a great deal of behind-the-scenes comings and goings, as well as public interventions that included initiatives by Greek-American lobbying groups in Washington, DC, which, inevitably, took partial credit for the development.

Yet the current affair raises issues that go beyond the centuries-old problem of political and financial intrigue in the name of defending the faith. In fact, it has to do with a very different centuries-old characteristic of the patriarchate that actually threatens to undermine its religious mission. When Eirineos and/or whoever else among the patriarchate’s leaders approved the clandestine real-estate deal to those “Jewish investors,” they were consciously flouting the wishes of the Church’s Arab faithful, who are obviously opposed to Israel’s bid to annex Jerusalem’s Old City.

This willful act of moral and constitutional duplicity serves to dramatize what has become a bizarre situation—even by Jerusalem’s standards. The patriarchate’s hierarchy consists of a synod of 18 bishops who are—with the exception of one—all born in Greece and continue to use the Greek language in the liturgy. Eirineos, for example, was born on the island of Samos. The patriarchate’s legal counsel is a professor at the University of Athens, and the address of the office of the legal counsel to the patriarchate of Jerusalem is listed as being on Michalakopoulou Street in Athens!

Meanwhile, there are virtually no Greek-speakers among the 45,000 or so Orthodox Christians in the West Bank, all of whom, naturally, speak Arabic. In 1992, some of them sought to redress this linguistic imbalance by demanding the “Arabization” of the patriarchate as the only way to preserve the authenticity and representative character of the Orthodox Church in the Holy Lands. Historical precedent was—and remains—on their side. In 1899, the neighboring patriarchate of Antioch in Syria, which was ruled for centuries by ethnically Greek prelates, reverted to the Arab Orthodox, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the Church.

The current issue in Jerusalem goes beyond mere linguistic redress, however. Arab members of the Church have also pointed out that the Greek hierarchy has shown minimal interest in the welfare and education of the Arab faithful. Long before Eirineos’s recent land deal, his predecessor, Patriarch Diodoros, had sold patriarchal land to Israeli investors, including a plot of land between the Old City and Jerusalem that was turned into Jewish settlements after its Arab inhabitants were evicted. Diodoros nevertheless peremptorily dismissed all accusations against him, stubbornly asserting the “historically Greek character” of the patriarchate.

Eirineos evidently lacks his predecessor’s political clout, and has lost the confidence not only of his synod but of the Greek government, both of which are trying to determine the legitimacy of his ousting in order to replace him with what will be the 141st Greek, Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. The Church’s autocratic style of governance, and its disregard of the Arab faithful, apparently does not concern either its synod or the Greek government very much. Nor does it concern the Israeli government, which obviously prefers a Greek to an Arab patriarch. Publicly, some Christian Palestinians state that the ethnicity of the patriarch is irrelevant as long as he protects the interests of the Church, but there are enough Arab worshippers who are rightfully fed up with the hegemony of the Greek prelates.

Consequently, it looks like the time is ripe for some stable-cleaning in the “Mother Church.” It should extend well beyond addressing the corruption that has led to the selling-off of Church property, however. Preserving ethnic Greek control of the patriarchate, and of its synod, has undermined Orthodoxy’s mission in the Holy Lands and among Christian Arabs. All those currently involved in resolving the real-estate scandal should not lose sight of the bigger picture, and should address it. This is not simply another twist in the Church’s long history of political intrigue, but an important opportunity to end the exclusion of Palestinian Arabs from the patriarchate’s leadership—for the good of what, after all, is now a Palestinian and Arab Orthodox Church, and in defense of everything that this Church has always professed to represent.

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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