Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Panel: Recognize Theofilis as rightful Greek patriarch

By Meron Rapoport and Barak Ravid

A ministerial committee on Greek Patriarchate affairs is recommending that the government recognize Theofilos as head of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The decision, spurred by American pressure and the personal involvement of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is supposed to put an end to a convoluted affair in the course of which various parties in Israel tried to condition the patriarch's appointment on his selling real estate properties to Jews.

The case began in March, 2005 after it emerged that the Ateret Cohanim organization had acquired four hotels from the Greek Patriarchate in a strategic area in Jerusalem's Old City, near Jaffa Gate. The sale aroused widespread anger among the Palestinian public, and several months later the church's governing Synod decided to remove the ruling patriarch, Irenios, from office, although he claimed the sale had taken place without his knowledge.

By law, a patriarch elected by the Synod still requires recognition by the Israeli government, which during Ariel Sharon's premiership appointed a ministerial committee to handle the matter. Today the committee is chaired by Minister Rafi Eitan of the Pensioners Party.

Besides the political sensitivity surrounding the identity of the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Christian sect in Israel and the Palestinians territories, the Israeli government's interest has been directed primarily at the assets in the church's possession. The Greek Church is one of the biggest private landowners in the country, with extensive property in the Jerusalem region, including the land on which the Knesset stands. An estimated one-fifth of the Old City belongs to the church.

Records of conversations and documents obtained by Haaretz clearly show that cabinet ministers had made recognition of Theofilos conditional upon his selling properties to Jews. Former minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who headed the committee when it was established, admitted that he asked Theofilos to promise not to disrupt the sale of the hotels to Jews as one of the conditions for Israel's recognition of him.

There were also reports in Israel, denied by Theofilos, that he undertook to cede control of these sensitive properties to Jordan and the Palestinians.



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