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Easter Week Old City Protests Demand Local Arab Rule  
By David Parsons

Holy Week in Jerusalem is usually marked by time-honored Christian observances between Palm Sunday and Easter, but this year?s celebrations have been marred by daily protests of local Arab Christians outside the Church of Holy Sepulchre demanding the resignation of the Greek Patriarch for allegedly selling land to Jews.

Last Friday, the Israeli daily Ma?ariv headlined a report claiming that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irineos I, had approved the sale of several church properties just inside Jaffa Gate, including the landmark Petra and Imperial hotels, to two

Aerial view of Knesset -
Built on land owned by the
Greek Orthodox Church. 
(Photo: Sherwood Burton)

groups of Jewish investors from abroad.

That evening, Irineos issued a statement saying: "I rigorously and absolutely deny any connection with this fictitious transaction." But the scandal has sparked daily protests for his ouster and replacement with a local Arab cleric, a move that could have huge ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Over many decades, the PLO has worked quietly to promote local Arab clergy loyal to Palestinian nationalism to positions of authority in Jerusalem?s traditional churches. As a result, the Latin Patriarch and the Anglican, Lutheran and several other bishops in Jerusalem are all now local Arabs who openly identify with the Palestinian cause.

But the most coveted position has been head of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, since as successor to the Byzantine Empire it inherited vast tracts of real estate in the Holy Land, making it one of the three or four largest landowners in Israel today.

The Greek church owns, for example, the hill where the Knesset stands, and the sites serving as the official residences of Israel?s president and prime minister. All are held by the state under long-term leases.

So far, the Greek church has resisted the PLO?s ?indigenization? process, continuing to promote Greek clergy to the sensitive position, which carries not only control over a lucrative real estate portfolio, but also the religious title of most senior Christian cleric in Jerusalem.

The latest land scandal threatens to change all that, however. A Christian ecumenical scholar in Jerusalem told ICEJ News that this week?s protests are ?undoubtedly being staged to undermine the Greek church?s resistance to Palestinianization? and added that certain Arab Catholic elements may also hope to benefit from a weakened and sullied Greek Patriarchate.

She described the local Greek Orthodox community as filled with many ?good clergy and parishioners,? but noted that over time the church?s extensive land holdings here and abroad have attracted certain seedy elements from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, fostering a separate, rather complex, inter-religious underworld of lawyers, land dealers and officials with many secrets and vested interests to protect.

?I doubt that anyone in the church, even the Greek Patriarch himself, really knows exactly what has occurred in this and similar land deals in the past,? she said. ? I pray they can preserve unity in the church and survive any attempted takeover.?

According to Maariv, the Old City properties were sold by a young Greek named Nicholas Papadimas, using a power of attorney he received from Irineos. The Patriarchate insists, however, that the power of attorney authorized only renting church properties, and that any sales must be approved by a wider Orthodox council called the Holy Synod.

The Palestinian Authority, Jordan and even Greece have all opened investigations into the affair.

Meanwhile as Good Friday and Easter Sunday approach, the plaza of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, adjacent to the Patriarchate, continues to be the site of daily protests by local Arab Christians demanding the church be ruled by Arab priests and not ?a branch of the Jewish Agency."


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