Israel angers Greek patriarch by inviting deposed predecessor

JERUSALEM – Israel’s president has angered the new Greek patriarch of the Holy Land by inviting both him and his predecessor – deposed for allegedly handing over property to Jews – to a state Christmas bash. The patriarch, Theophilos III, will not attend the annual party because the invitation addressed him as a mere «bishop,» said the church secretary, Archbishop Aristarchos. The previous patriarch, Irineos I, was ousted in May amid allegations he leased property in Jerusalem’s Old City to Jewish settler groups. Israel has not recognized Irineos’s removal nor the naming of Theophilos. Theophilos has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to get the state to recognize him, since under Church rules he must be approved by all governments in the areas where his flock lives – Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The latter two have affirmed Theophilos’s naming. Israeli President Moshe Katsav has invited 250 church leaders and top officials – including Theophilos and Irineos – to his office’s annual Christmas party on Thursday, said Avi Granot, Katsav’s political adviser. «We are not going to participate because Irineos is the ex-patriarch and Theophilos is the patriarch and was referred to as bishop,» Aristarchos said. The decision by Katsav’s office to invite both was in line with Israeli government policy not to recognize the deposition of Irineos, Granot said. «We respect all church leaders, patriarchs and bishops alike,» Granot said. The long-term lease of the Church property – allegedly approved by Irineos – enraged the Greek Orthodox Church’s predominantly Palestinian flock because it strengthened the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state. Theophilos, 53, has said he will not recognize any land deals signed by his predecessor. He has accused Israel of not recognizing him in an effort to extort his support for the lease of the property, which includes two hotels and several shops. Property dealings are highly sensitive to the Greek Orthodox Church, which is one of the major landowners in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and thus has influence far beyond its 90,000-member flock. Among the Church’s high-profile holdings are historic buildings in the Old City, prime real estate in Jerusalem and the site of some Israeli government buildings. After the leases in east Jerusalem were publicized earlier this year, pressure mounted on Irineos to cancel them or resign. He did neither, despite an open mutiny by followers and rebel clerics. In reaction, world Orthodox leaders stopped recognizing his authority, and a Church tribunal in Jerusalem defrocked him and demoted him to the rank of monk. Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it.