JERUSALEM – Incensing some officials here, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday met and held a photo opportunity with a man enthroned two years ago as Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem even though Israel won’t recognize his leadership.
The Israeli government has withheld support for Theofilos III, elected patriarch in 2005 amid charges of church irregularities, due to his position on canceling the sale to Jewish groups of church land comprising much of a key entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. Theofilos also has been quoted by church officials as opposing the sale of Jerusalem property to Jews.
Ownership of the land in question – two hotels that comprise a large section of the Jaffa Gate, the principal entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem – could be crucial in the future status of Jerusalem during upcoming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Previous U.S.-backed proposals have allotted Jewish-owned sections of Jerusalem to Israel and Arab-occupied real estate to the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials hinted the past few days the Israeli government may be willing to evacuate parts of Jerusalem.
Rice yesterday met Theofilos and other church officials at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the believed birthplace of Jesus. The church is administered by the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.
According to officials present, Rice was briefed about Israel’s position against recognizing Theofilos. She then met with the embattled Greek figure and posed with him and other church officials for a photograph in what has been described as a clear gesture of support for Theofilos.
Regional bylaws require Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox patriarch – the religious leader of 100,000 Christians in the Holy Land. – to be recognized by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Jordan and the PA approved of Theofilos, but Israel has withheld its support amid reports, first exposed by WND, that prior to the patriarchal elections Theofilos, along with other candidates for patriarch, signed a secret church document stating if he were elected leader he would nullify all transactions made by Irineos, the previous patriarch, including the Jaffa Gate sale.
Church officials tried to oust Irineos in May 2005 by holding new patriarchal elections after it was exposed he allegedly leased for 99 years the church’s Jaffa Gate real estate to Jewish groups.
Theofilos has claimed he is still obtaining all the information on the real estate deals conducted under Irenios and that he hasn’t made any decisions yet regarding the Jaffa’s Gate sale. But some Israeli officials chalk up Theofilos’ reluctance to immediately cancel the deal to the fact that the Jewish state is still deliberating whether to recognize his leadership.
Israel established a committee comprised of senior government ministers to debate recognition of the newly elected patriarch, who is accused of failing to comply with Israeli election procedures. Theofilos has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to bypass the committee and bestow his recognition. That case is scheduled to be heard in December.
But WND revealed Theofilos already signed a document stating he would nullify the Jaffa land deal.
The document, addressed to the Palestinian Authority and obtained by WND, states, “We, the candidates of the Greek Orthodox Church, hereby agree that we are obliged to abide by the law of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate. … In the event that we are elected, we shall act for the cancellation of all transactions made during the period of Irineos I, and shall keep the Orthodox religious trust.”
High-placed sources close to the church said the document was drafted by a PA government minister with the specific goal of canceling Irineos’ lease of the Jaffa Gate hotels to the Jewish groups .
“The candidates were essentially blackmailed by the Palestinians that if they didn’t sign the document and cancel the lease, they would not get approval of the PA as candidates and could not run in elections,” a church source told WND. “This is an outright racist policy against the Jews.”
A senior church leader close to Irineos told WND: “Theofilos has made statements about not providing Jerusalem land to Jews. He agrees with the Palestinians that they have the rights to eastern Jerusalem.”
This past May, Jordan temporarily suspended Theofilos for three months, reportedly asking him to immediately cancel the Jaffa’s Gate deal. According to informed sources, Theofilis was reinstated in August after assuring Jordan he would ultimately nullify the land sale.
Irineos continues to occupy the patriarch’s quarters and did not attend Theofilos’ installation ceremony.
Speaking to WND, Irineos said he could not comment on the secret document regarding nullification of the Jaffa Gate sale, but said, “There is a lot at play here in the election of Theofilos and attempts at deposing [me].”
“The electorate was blackmailed into supporting Theofilos,” Irineos said. “They were told by fathers and brotherhood members and others that if they didn’t vote for Theofilos, they would be kicked out of the church. Documents were made to be signed, including a letter that said ‘I will not stand with Irineos.’”
Irineos said he will not step down as patriarch and is “eagerly awaiting” the Israeli committee decision.
In an official document responding to Theofilos’ petition for recognition, Israel has described the 2005 ceremony to enthrone Theofilos as a “serious impropriety.”
“The petition of Theofilos III should be rejected, because the ceremony was held before a verdict was handed down,” read the Israeli response. “Israel had already expressed its objections about the matter in a letter written by the minister for Jerusalem affairs, Tzachi Hanegbi, which the patriarchate did not take into account.”
A lobbyist involved in the 2005 patriarchal elections who spoke with WND on condition of anonymity – claiming he could be in danger – said, “There were very clear indications Arab politics were at play in the election of Theofilos. There was direct blackmail involved.”
The lobbyist continued: “The document Theofilos and the other candidates signed is racism, pure and simple. The church has a very large Palestinian and Jordanian Arab constituency. The only reason the church wants the Jaffa Gate lease nullified is because it signed over Jerusalem land to Jews.”
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