Once and for all: The government has finally paved the way for the replacing of Pro-PLO Greek Orthodox Church Patriarch Irineos by Theophilos, to the relief of large sectors of the Christian world.
The Cabinet made the decision to approve Theophilus in its most recent weekly meeting, following the recommendation of the relevant ministerial committee. The committee, headed by former Shin Bet (General Security Services) Chief of Operations and current Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan, made its recommendation a month and a half ago.
Extensive Land Holdings
Theophilos was originally elected patriarch by the Greek Orthodox Synod in 2005, but Israel’s approval – along with those of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority - are all required in order to validate the election. The Greek Orthodox Church numbers about 100,000 faithful, most of them Arabs, and is considered the richest church in Israel. The Church Patriarch has responsibility for its extensive land holdings, which include the land on which the Knesset was built, the Prime Minister’s and the President’s official residences, parts of Jerusalem’s wealthiest neighborhoods, locations in the Old City and in the new Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, in the Galilee, near Beit Shemesh, and elsewhere.
Why the Delay?
While delaying its approval for the past two years, the government established committees to investigate the religious, political and security ramifications of the appointment of Theophilos. He adds, however, that many within and without Israel criticized the long delay – and suspicions were raised that it concerned private real estate considerations involving persons close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Israel’s daily Yediot Acharonot reported in detail several months ago that the delay was meant to pressure Theophilos to agree to sell Church land near Beit Shemesh to a company connected with a friend of Olmert. The Prime Minister’s Bureau has denied the allegations, saying they were totally groundless.
Israel’s image suffered during this period in the Christian world, which brought heavy pressure to bear upon Israel to give its approval. In addition, the delay meant that Irineos, whose pro-Palestinian positions have been well-documented, officially continued in office.
On July 17, 2001, Irineos wrote a personal letter to Arafat, saying, "You are aware of the sentiments of disgust and disrespect that all the Holy Sepulchre fathers are feeling for the descendants of the crucifiers of our Lord... actual crucifiers of your people, Sionists [sic] Jewish conquerors of the Holy Land of Palestine." In the letter, he asks Arafat for his support, promising that if he is elected head of the church, "rest assured, Mr. President, that the rights of our most beloved Palestinian people on the Holy City of Jerusalem will find the most 'hot' supporter."
No Land to Jews?
Minister of Religious Affairs Yitzchak Cohen (Shas) raised objections to Theophilos’ appointment on the grounds that Theophilos had said he would not approve real estate deals. Following this lead, many reports referred to Theophilus as the "No Land to Jews" Patriarch. However, Minister Cohen was not present at the ministerial committee session at which representatives of Theophilos explained that this was a general position expressed by all the candidates for the job, and that it essentially related to one specific deal – the purchase of two hotels near Jaffa Gate in the Old City.
The sale in question was first reported in March 2005, when the Church sold two Jaffa Gate hotels and neighboring shops to Jewish interests. Under heavy Palestinian Authority pressure, it later repudiated the sale. Church sources said that Irineos' trusted financial advisor Nicholas Papedemes made the deal in Irineos' name, and then fled the country with the money. Though Papedemes presented a document signed by Irineos authorizing him to carry out financial deals, Irineos said he never authorized the Jaffa Gate transaction.
Church officials tried to oust Irineos just two months later, in May 2005, by holding new patriarchal elections.
The status of the hotels at present is not clear, and the matter will apparently be taken to court. Theophilos has said he will take a stance based on the interests of the Church - in which, he added, is included the supremacy of local law.
Shimon Cohen contributed to this story.