The Israeli government is refusing to recognize the authority of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Holy Land, more than three months after his election, on suspicion that he is pro-Palestinian.
The refusal to approve the appointment is said to be disrupting the day-to-day functioning of the Greek Patriarchate, the oldest and most powerful church in Jerusalem.
Under a law dating back to the sixth century emperor Justinian, the government of the Holy Land has the right to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of patriarch.
Patriarch Irineos, 62, was enthroned in August following a long and stormy election process. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have confirmed his elevation to the position.
But the Israeli government, which at first tried to have his name removed from the list of candidates and then retracted in the face of a court challenge, is still refusing to approve the elections.
No Israeli representatives attended the inauguration ceremony September, and in recent weeks no Israeli cabinet minister or other top official has agreed to meet the patriarch.
The lack of recognition by Israel means for example that visas are not being approved for visitors that the Greek Patriarch would like to invite to the Holy Land, the weekly Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha’ir has reported.
Israeli officials have told reporters they have intelligence reports that Irineos has business contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Although not illegal, such contacts, in the present political climate, would be considered highly sensitive by the Israeli authorities.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is the biggest owner of real estate in the Holy Land, with holdings that include the land on which the Knesset – the Israeli Parliament – stands, the Kol Ha’ir said.
The paper added that the government is suspicious that the patriarchate “means to exploit the patriarchate’s assets, amounting to hundreds of dunams [hundreds of thousands of square metres] all over the country, as a lever for PLO activities.”
The patriarch has confirmed that he intends to re-negotiate the leases on such prime pieces of property as that on which the Knesset stands but says he does not intend to use this as a tool to undermine the political stability of the Jewish State.
He has said that as a spiritual leader he does not intend to interfere in political matters. “I am not pro-Palestinian, nor pro-Israeli, nor pro-anything. I am only pro-God,” he said. He said that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was an end to the violence and a resumption of peace talks.
“There is only one viable solution in every conflict between human beings: discussion and mutual concessions,” he said.
The patriarch also challenged the notion that most of his followers in the Holy Land are Palestinians. He said that he is the spiritual leader not only of Arabs but also Romanians, Greeks and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who he said could number in the hundreds of thousands.