04/25/2005, 00.00
israel - holy land
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Greek Orthodox Patriarch labelled as "Judas" for having sold Church properties in Jerusalem

The Orthodox community is asking for his resignation and removal.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) When Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ireneos was leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the end of his Church's Palm Sunday ceremonies, on Sunday, 24 April, he was met by lay members of his own community, and others, demonstrating against him and calling for his resignation or removal. Some of the demonstrators called him "Judas Iscariot", in reference to his selling out important properties of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. This brought even greater intensity to the wave of demonstrations and protests against Ireneos that has been going on for weeks, ever since the press discovered - and published - that he had sold prominent buildings owned by the Patriarchate just inside the "Jaffa Gate" of the Old City of Jerusalem. Official investigations have also been launched by three governments: The Republic of Greece, the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan. This scandal has been intensified that a key person in promoting Ireneos's election, and introduced by him several years ago as a most trusted friend, is a notorious criminal, wanted by the police of several countries (he was finally captured by Italian police, in Bologna, last weekend), and that another key aide to Ireneos has also fled, under suspicion of corruption and embezzlement.

For his part, Ireneos refused to answer questions from Greek Government investigators, and has insisted publicly that he had never "sold" the properties. This is only technically correct. Technically, like all the many other land sales by a series of Greek Patriarchs of Jerusalem over many decades, the transactions are officially leases, but leases for decades and even centuries (in some cases, for 999 years, in others, for 99 years) so that, for all practical purposes, they are indeed the same as sales. In all these cases, the properties are effectively gone, while there is no public accounting of what is done with the payments received from them. Attempts to challenge the Patriarchate's practices in the Israeli courts have always failed, with the courts ruling that the Patriarch's right to dispose of the property and money of the Church is absolute, and not subject to control.

Now pressure for Ireneos's resignation and removal is growing even among his Greek clergy, but it is probable that the Governments concerned - and not only Israel  - will not allow his removal. A weak, divided, scandal-plagued church is, after all, much easier for all governments to control than a strong, united church with moral authority, says an expert observer in Jerusalem who wishes for anonymity.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, as a concrete historical organisation, dates back to the first half of the sixteenth century. Then the Ottoman Empire, which had just occupied the Holy Land (1516), extinguished, in effect, the indigenous Eastern-rite Patriarchate, and imported Greek monks to take over its structures and property. These monks are organised as a religious brotherhood, the Hagiotaphitic Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, which takes care to accept only ethnic Greeks, from Greece, and to exclude the local Christians, all of them Arabs, from any positions of power or influence. The same situation had existed in Syira, in the Patriarchate of Antioch, until 1899, when the local faithful and clergy rose up and drove the foreigners out. Since then the Patriarchate of Antioch has had an indigenous leadership. Recently this indigenous Patriarchate has tried to establish a branch also deep inside the Jerusalem Patriarchate's territory, in Jordan.

In addition to questionable personnel and business decisions, Ireneos has also distinguished himself by hostility and aggression towards other Christians, continually provoking disputes with the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and violating the rules governing relations with the Catholic Church at the Holy Sepulchre. In the most notorious incident, on 27 September last year, he ordered his monks to launch a physical assault on the Jerusalem police who were protecting a handful of Franciscans inside the Holy Sepulchre. The violent frenzy lasted a full half hour before the police managed to subdue the Greek monks. The whole event was captured on film by an amateur videophotographer and this evidence has been widely viewed by authorities and journalists.

This week Jerusalem police are nervously awaiting Orthodox Holy Saturday when Greeks and Armenians may be in violent conflict at the Holy Sepulchre. Ireneos has announced that he will not let the Armenian Patriarch into the Edicule to light the "holy fire" together with him, and all efforts by the Israeli government to convince him otherwise have - until now - failed. The Armenians have asked the Israeli Supreme Court to intervene, and to order that the Armenian Patriarch be allowed into the Edicule, in accordance with the special international legal régime at the Holy Sepulchre, but the Court has refused to intervene. Israel has an international treaty with the Holy See - the 1993 Fundamental Agreement - that obliges the State to enforce the legal régime governing the Holy Sepulchre, but the Armenian Patriarchate is obviously not a party to this treaty, and is therefore powerless to invoke it directly (although the Armenians benefit from it indirectly, whenever both they and the Catholics are victims of Ireneos's aggression). As regards the Catholic Church, however, Catholic Church sources tell AsiaNews, Israel has recently been showing a new willingness to control Ireneos, and to prevent him from violating the rules or attacking the personnel of the Catholic Church at the Holy Sepulchre - although the situation needs continued careful monitoring, especially with a view to Orthodox Easter next Sunday. Israel's increased attention to protecting Catholic rights and Catholic personnel, say the same sources, is attributable  to the Catholic Church's ability to invoke Israel's treaty obligations in this regard.

Catholic leaders are deeply worried by the scandals surrounding Ireneos, since the general public does not always distinguish among the different organisations designated as "Christian" or as "Churches", with the result that the Christian religion itself risks being brought into disrepute. (AC)

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