Dissidents’ rejection of Irenaios adds to patriarch’s pressures

JERUSALEM – In the latest twist to a tempestuous tenure as head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Patriarch Irenaios was declared persona non grata yesterday by Church elders amid a controversial land-sale scandal that has sparked Arab fury. Irenaios, who was elected patriarch in 2001, has persistently ducked pressure to step down despite a series of scandals, the most explosive of which involved the alleged secret sale of Church land in Jerusalem to a group of Jewish investors. The storm broke in mid-March when Israeli newspaper Maariv published details of a multimillion-dollar transaction in which ideologically motivated Jewish businessmen acquired land in a predominantly Palestinian area of the Old City. The transaction sparked fury among Palestinians as Greek Orthodox Arabs clamored for his resignation and slandered Irenaios as a traitor. It was the culmination of a troubled three-and-a-half-year term of office, during which the 65-year-old cleric has been rarely far from controversy. Born Emmanuel Skopelitis on the Greek island of Samos in 1939, he studied at the Greek Orthodox seminary on Mount Zion, where he was given the name of Irenaios. In 1972, he was made the Jerusalem Patriarchate’s representative in Athens. Nearly 30 years later, he was enthroned as the 140th Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem in September 2001. But it was another two years before Israel formally recognized his election, a reluctance attributed to his perceived pro-Arab stance and his control over vast tracts of land across Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 2003, he sued a former rival to the Patriarchate, accusing him of hiring a Palestinian hit man to kill him. The rival, Timotheos, countersued, accusing Irenaios of circulating falsified photographs of him in a homosexual tryst. A year later, Irinaios took out a lawsuit against Maariv for accusing him of harboring close ties to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and anti-Semitic sentiments. He later dropped the lawsuit. But he returned to the headlines in February, linked to a convicted Greek drug dealer accused of rigging the 2001 patriarchal elections in Irenaios’s favor and forging pornographic photographs of Timotheos. Around the same time, the man responsible for long-term leases of Church land at the Patriarchate disappeared, leaving a large hole in the Church’s finances.