Greek Orthodox church in Holy Land elects new head

JERUSALEM - Dealing a blow to Israeli efforts to influence the future of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, clergymen ended months of leadership paralysis Monday by electing a new leader opposed by the Jewish State.

Bells rung out from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' resurrection, to herald the election of Metropolitan Irineos, a man regarded by Israel as hostile to its interests.

"Irineos, Irineos!" exclaimed a jubilant churchman who rushed red-faced from the site of the secret ballot in the ornate chapel to announce the election of the new patriarch. He punched the air and jumped up and down in celebration.

Israel had for months tried to block the white-bearded Irineos and four other candidates from the contest to succeed the late Diodorus I as head of the Holy Land's oldest and largest church.

Israel had cited "security considerations" and "interests in Jerusalem" for its decision to omit the five from a list of 15 men submitted by the Greek Patriarchate for state approval after Diodorus' death in December.

Under Ottoman law still honored by the Church, its 17-member synod submits candidates to the sovereign power. Today, that includes not only Israel, but also Jordan and the Palestinian Authority -- both of which accepted the names.

Israel withdrew its objections earlier this month after coming under Greek Orthodox and international pressure to stay out of the Church's affairs.

"This election result is a great disappointment for the Israeli government," Rabbi David Rosen, a leading Israeli inter-faith activist, said.

"Irineos is seen as less amenable and less willing (than other nominees) to kow-tow to Israeli interests. This result proves the real futility of the effort and assumption you can draw the map to suit your own political interest," he said.

While Irineos has yet to show where his sympathies lie, Rosen said the wrangle over his candidacy was bound to leave its mark. "If someone had tried to keep me out of the position, I'm not sure I would have a great love for Israel either," he said.

The Church's large-scale land ownership, greatly disproportionate to its relatively tiny Holy Land congregation of fewer than 100,000 people, has placed it squarely in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian battle over Jerusalem.

Diodorus sold and leased Israel significant tracts of land to the displeasure of the Church's mainly Arab followers.


The Church owns or leases large areas in Jerusalem, including affluent neighborhoods in Jewish West Jerusalem and the land on which Israel's president and prime minister reside.

Israel maintains Jerusalem is its "united and undivided capital." Aware its leases on several properties in the city are due to expire by mid-century, it is wary of the Church falling into the hands of a pro-Arab patriarch.

Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as the capital of a future state.

Monday's election result was also a setback for Irineos's two main rivals, Metropolitan Timothy and Metropolitan Cornelius, who had served as acting patriarch after Diodorus's death.

Church members allude to ugly rivalry between the candidates in recent months -- including allegations of sexual misconduct and financial corruption -- and tensions between the Greek clergy and its mainly Arab flock.

Many laity charge the clergy with being out of touch with them, and of betraying Palestinians with lucrative land-sales profits that have lined leadership pockets.

Israeli police are investigating charges made by an Israeli lawyer that he gave Diodorus $16 million to lease church land in Jerusalem. Diodorus claimed his name on the deed was forged. The money is still missing.