New claims raise pressure on patriarch

The embattled Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem leased Church property in the holy city to Jewish groups to prove to Israeli authorities that he does not sympathize with the Palestinians, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Sunday, citing Irenaios’s fugitive former financial manager, Nikos Papadimas. The report came just two days after the Israeli newspaper that first carried claims of the land deal, Maariv, published excerpts of what it said was the eight-page lease agreement between the Patriarchate and unidentified foreign Jewish investors. The alleged deal has infuriated Palestinians who fear it would expand Israeli control of Arab east Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel claims the whole city as its indivisible capital. Greek and Palestinian officials at the Patriarchate have called for Irenaios’s resignation, while the Greek Foreign Ministry has strongly hinted the patriarch should step down. Irenaios has denied the allegations and accused Papadimas of embezzling church funds. Speaking to Greek pilgrims yesterday, he once again maintained his innocence. «May my hands be cut off if I have stolen,» he said. «Fresh mud sticks, but once it has dried it falls away… We have betrayed nobody, and our last breath will be drawn for the Holy Sepulcher… Unfortunately, there are worms and pieces of rubbish… even among our brotherhood.» For two years, the Israeli government had refused to approve Irenaios’s election as patriarch, suspecting him of being anti-Israel and of having close ties to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November. But in January 2004 – following considerable pressure from Athens – Israel suddenly confirmed Irenaios in his post and shortly afterward, the church leader signed over two Palestinian-inhabited buildings in Jerusalem’s Old City to a Jewish lessee working through a company in the Bahamas, Papadimas was quoted as telling Haaretz. Papadimas, who vanished three months ago, is wanted in Greece after Church officials in Athens accused him of absconding with 600,000 euros in church funds. His wife is wanted on separate charges of money laundering. The newspaper claimed Papadimas is hiding in the United States. Opponents of Irenaios had threatened to disrupt Orthodox Christian Easter rituals in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Saturday but were kept away by hundreds of Israeli police, who set up barricades in the alleys leading to the Jerusalem holy site. This followed protests by Palestinians on Friday outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Meanwhile, in a fight over precedence inside the church on Saturday afternoon, Armenian priests attacked Irenaios and his retinue ahead of the flame-lighting ceremony on the spot Christians identify as Christ’s grave. (Combined reports)